Why Celebrating Successes Is Important When Modifying Your Accent

Accent Modification success celebration - Helen KobekIt happens to all of us, pretty much, whether or not we are engaged in accent modification or not: We start off a new project with great enthusiasm, chug away at it for a number of months (or days, or weeks) and then BAM! We hit a wall. Something stops moving forward. “What am I doing wrong?” we wonder. “Should I just drop this whole thing?”

This is how it happens with accent modification sometimes. The basics have been achieved: The diphthongs have been added, the aspiration is settling in where it belongs, the dentalizing has eased, the melody is wonderful, but something is missing. And students feel it. They know they’ve “got it,” but something feels ill at ease. Unsettled overall.

Well, that’s because it IS unsettled. It IS ill at ease. They have “got it,” but what that means is just that the changes they’ve needed or wanted to make are in their hands, but their hands are still – as it were – palm-up and open. There is not a strong sense of the hands being closed around these changes. As if the changes could just slip out of their hands. Very unsettling.

This, we know, is the learning process. When we learn something, there is a time when we have to come to “make it ours.” It’s not just about practice and experience. It’s more than that.

It is about having lots of time with the changed patterns. It is about whether the student feels the changes are theirs or the teacher’s. (In other words, does the student make the correct pronunciation without cueing from the teacher?) It is about whether or not the changes come out of the student’s mouth naturally or with struggle and effort. It is about TRUSTING in the changes.

So how does an accent modification student firm that up? Close their hands around the changes? Claim them as their own?

Well, for one thing, give it time. And how much time is different for each student. Some students claim these changes pretty quickly, while others move along with self-doubt for an uncomfortably long time. But here’s a tip for how to solidify that trust, shorten the time needed: CELEBRATE THE CHANGES AS THEY SHOW UP. Yes, celebrate! My students see me celebrate (being happy, saying “That’s IT!”) around each move, each step, each correction. Sometimes it is truly surprising to some students – especially students who are the merest bit quiet, shall we say, shy. But they begin to experience the benefit of celebration over time. They feel the encouragement, because they know it took effort for them to produce the change. And they want to hold it as their own. Celebration of change is not just reinforcing it…no…It’s saying “Wonderful!” instead of just “You got it right.”

So, as you make changes, go ahead and celebrate each step. It will, for sure, help you lock in those hard-won changes, as you move towards being understood all the time!

CTA wordpress

© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

English Pronunciation: Sometimes it Gets Harder Before it Gets Better. What?!

Male tutroing female Acent Mdificaiton - len KobekAlmost always, within a couple of months of starting accent modification lessons, students notice a bump up in others’ understanding of them. Life gets easier, less strenuous in conversations, at work, among friends. It gets better. But sometimes, just sometimes, communication with others gets a little harder before it gets better. There’s an alarming bump DOWN. And this can cause a panic in accent modification students, quite understandably. The most important thing for students to know that what’s happening is this: YOU’RE ACTUALLY IMPROVING!

Why does this bump down sometimes happen? It’s really not about YOU, the speaker. It has to do with the listener – the people you are talking with.  People who talk with (listen to) non-native speakers of English listen to those folks using a sort of template of comprehension. They hear the non-native speaker through a filter of categorization of the speaker’s accent, and match it to a quickly retrieved, so-to-speak, accent template in their  minds. This happens for the listener VERY QUICKLY, and continues to happen throughout any given conversation: matching, comparing, confused about the mismatch. SO…when a non-native speaker’s accent is dropping away (i.e., when the accent modification student is  making progress), the speaker is SOMETIMES consistent with what the listener’s brain is expecting, but NOT ALWAYS. So the listener gets confused. (Their brain is thinking, “Oh, sometimes I hear and “r” and sometimes I hear “t”…sooooo… what am I hearing? I’m not sure!”)

Some listeners have an abundance of patience when talking with a non-native speaker of English. They will hang in there, keep trying to sort it out, either because they need to (maybe they are a colleague or supervisor) or because they care about you (a new friend). Treasure those people and encourage their engagement. But sometimes, listeners do not have that patience, that stick-to-it-iveness. They smile, nod, move away, make excuses to disengage.

This is very frustrating, to say the least, for students who are sincerely studying and practicing.

But have hope! The more the accent shifts to more consistency, the less confusing it will be to the listener, and the more fluid will be your conversations.  The more the non-native speaker can put the listener at ease (that dissonance of hearing/matching is amplified when it’s a stressful conversation), the less it will happen. Use humor. Acknowledge the awkwardness, if you can.

And remember…if this happens, it’s temporary, and it means things are improving! You’ll get to the other side of this awkward –  rather unfair – stage. Rest easy, and keep practicing! You’re moving in the right direction, as evidenced – ironically – by the fact that people are having trouble with your changes!! Hang in there!

CTA wordpress red

© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

Suffering through Syllables: Tips from an Accent Modification Expert

Oh_My_English_logoEveryone learning something new wonders, deep down, “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I GET this?” One of the most important aspects of teaching accent modification is helping every student understand that whatever they have not been “getting” – whether for months, years, or decades – is always something tricky about English pronunciation. Something subtle that they just need explained to them in detail. With that explanation, the “Ah hah!” arises, and they move forward.

One common example of the many pronunciation subtleties that snag non-native English speakers is any word shown in the dictionary as having one syllable, but, functionally, has two syllables. And, if the student has been trying FOR YEARS to pronounce that word as one syllable, they are trying the impossible. Honestly. An example? “World.” A simple, commonly used word, the bane of many non-native English speakers,  needs to be pronounced as two syllables: As in “were-[schwa] ld.” When I teach this word, I delve into why “world,” and so many other words, functions as two syllables. The parsing out of the reason for the challenge helps students through the struggle. To the other side of the “world,” so to speak.

You can assume that any word with “l” in it beyond the first letter or consonant blend will need to spread out into at least two syllables, functionally. For a word like “railing,” go for three syllables, because the “ai” is a diphthong that contains a “y” sound in there, so you need time to push through all of it. Go for this: “ray-[schwa]-ling.” Same thing goes for words with “r” beyond the first letter (or consonant blend),  like “hear.” Seems like it should be wee, short, quick, but pull it into two syllables to allow for the transition into the “r.” Go for this: “hee-yer.” I promise it will be easier and make lots of sense as you apply this idea.

Be mindful, though, that sometimes when students think a word needs extra space for an “r” or “l” transition in a consonant blend, it’s really just that the blending of the sounds needs more work – like, for example, in words like “apply” or “accrue.” So take care not to extend all words into an additional syllable if there’s an “l” or an “r.” We just need to attend to each context differently.

So here’s what I want every student to know: When you’re struggling with a word, when you’re avoiding using it, we just need to parse it out. Then it will be yours to use easily, comfortably, freely. It’s not you! It’s the language!

I look forward to helping you be understood…..ALL THE TIME!

CTA wordpress corrected

© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

How to Ask Native English Speakers for Feedback

friend_woman_person_man_talking-180040It takes a lot of people to help someone modify an  accent towards Standard American English. My role: I meet with students once or twice a week, assess, teach, support, educate, help to motivate, problem solve when things get “stuck,” and then some. The student’s role: practice, listen to their speech, focus, expose themselves to native speech as much as possible, and – a major one here – ENLIST THE ASSISTANCE OF OTHER NATIVE SPEAKERS.

This last student role – enlisting the help of other native English –  is crucial for accent modification students’ progress. With assistance from other native speakers, students get feedback – immediate feedback – and encouragement. How to enlist that assistance? ASK FOR FEEDBACK.  Go ahead and ask. Most Americans are terribly hesitant to say to a non-native speaker, “That’s close but not quite an ‘l’ sound.” Most Americans just don’t want to embarrass a non-native speaker, or to come across as judgmental or mean-spirited. So Americans need permission to give feedback. We really do need that. If we don’t have that permission, most Americans will just nod and smile and pretend to know what is being said to us, or ignore the obvious mispronunciation. There is a wealth of help and support available in willing native English speakers who are invited to help accent modification students. Do, do, do take advantage of that.

Here’s what to do: Choose two or three people in your life who are native speakers of Standard American English. People you trust have your best interest at heart. People who speak English well, and are able to give pretty clear feedback. (Certainly choose standard American English speakers, as opposed to albeit good-hearted folks who have, say,  British or Scottish accents.) These people can be friends, co-workers, mentors, supervisors, neighbors, librarians, anyone you trust. And – here’s another key thing – they do not need to be able to instruct you on how to make the sound correctly. They only need to be able/willing to let you know when it’s not quite “on.” If these chosen folks think they’re going to need to instruct you, they likely won’t try.

So go ahead and make a list of possible people to ask for help with your accent modification, and think about it for a while. It’s kind of a solemn contract you’re entering with this person – they will be agreeing to help you in this most significant, sincere effort you are making: to work towards being understood all the time. This is a sacred request, and will be met with, I hope, a sincere response of “Absolutely! I’d be honored to help!”

CTA wordpress corrected

© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

English Pronunciation Training: To Record or Not to Record?

SONY DSC“Should I record myself practicing accent modification?” I’m often asked by students. My response: “Yes, but rarely!”

Here’s when and why you might want to record yourself:

It can be helpful to record yourself reading a familiar paragraph when you are starting accent modification instruction. It gives you a good baseline of where you started in your pronunciation. Then go ahead and record yourself reading the same paragraph about two months after starting training, and then again another two months later, and so forth. You’ll hear a substantial difference from where you started! And it will tell you that change is possible and is happening. Hearing that change will encourage you in moments of doubt…”Have I really made that much progress?” That doubt is understandable and common, even when you are hearing from friends and co-workers that you’re making progress. It’s always helpful to hear it for yourself. You can trust it more.

But I always discourage students from recording themselves (both during lessons and outside of lessons) in order to catch their pronunciation mistakes. Why? Because your primary job, as an accent modification student, is to learn to listen to yourself – really hear yourself – while you are speaking. And if you become accustomed to relying on recording, that very important, key feedback loop is compromised – never developed, or developed inaccurately.

Here is some help towards catching your speech without using a recorder:

  • Practice listening to yourself while speaking. If you’re home alone and talking aloud, close your eyes sometimes to help tune yourself in more to your own speech.
  • Also try cupping your hands around your ears on both sides to amplify your speech by throwing it forward. You will hear how your voice tone is, in reality, so don’t be surprised if you are surprised by your own voice at first!
  • When you’re talking, you might occasionally pause and ask yourself, “How did that come out?”

When you do record yourself for that monitoring and celebratory process, keep the recording short (just a couple of paragraphs) so you don’t fatigue and lose your rhythm. And choose fairly simple, but interesting topics, something you’re familiar with, too. Like something from work, or a story you enjoy. Practice reading it a couple of times before you turn on the recorder so you hear yourself at your best. Remember to say the date at the start of your recording., so you can easily compare!

So pick up the recording device only rarely, to admire your changes and advancements. And TRUST that you can listen to yourself and catch what you need to catch. I’ll help you, through a variety of techniques, to develop that listening and catching ability. That’s a major part of my job with you. It will help you get where you want to go much faster.

CTA wordpress corrected

© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

English Pronunciation Assessment: How it Works

tutor-606091_960_720So here we are, sitting together for our first accent modification lesson. Yes, we’ve talked over the phone, but now we’re sitting together, pens in hand, paper in front of us. Now what?

We’ll be talking, and I’ll be listening very closely, taking lots of notes, which you’ll be welcome to see either while I’m writing or after, but I’ll be explaining everything once the assessment is done. The questions I ask will be open-ended to encourage you to talk! I’ll be asking you to repeat things you’ve said so I can fully “get” what you’re saying and, more importantly, how you’re saying it: What is your tongue doing? How much voice are you adding? I’ll be asking questions that will elicit a broad variety of speech sounds so I can get a comprehensive idea of where you are now and where we need to go with lessons. I will likely ask you the same questions repeatedly, if I’m trying to be sure I hear how you’re saying something. I’m not listening to the content of what you are saying, so please not to take offense if I later do not remember something important you shared with me! It’s nothing personal! I’m just in “assessment/hearing” mode.

One thing I’ll be doing while we’re talking is preparing a set of priority phonemes (speech sounds that can change the meaning of a word) for you to modify. This list will likely be a mix of consonants and vowels (including diphthongs), and will be personalized to your speech patterns – not just based on what your native language is. The length of that priority set will depend on how much change you wish to make: Do you want to be understood all the time? Or are you planning to eliminate your “foreign”  accent entirely? It’s a good idea for you to consider this matter before our first meeting, but, of course, you can change your mind at any point along the way after we start lessons. In fact, students fairly frequently do come into training thinking they want to eliminate their accents, and then decide to work towards being understood all the time, and vise versa.

And that’s how it works! A comprehensive conversation, lots of questions and repetition. And then the first, model lesson, right after the assessment, during our first meeting. So you can get a sense of how I teach, I can get a sense of how you learn, and then we see where we go from there. I look forward to meeting with you!

CTA wordpress corrected

© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

Starting Accent Training but Visiting Your Country? Tips on How to Keep Your Progress

airplane-“I’LL BE GOING BACK TO MY HOME COUNTRY in a month for two  months,” someone interested in accent modification lessons told me last week, . “How about I start it now and continue when I get back?” they asked.

“Better to wait until you come back, and start it then,” I replied, as I almost always do. It can be disappointing to students to hear that, and, of course, I’ll start with a new student who’s soon going back home if they are really firm about it, but I do tend to discourage it. Here’s my thinking about it, based on decades of experience:

I recommend that students get started in training/lessons when they have a pretty good idea that they’ll be in the United States for a solid two to six months after getting started. If a student goes back to their home country with only a month of lessons under their belt, the likelihood that they will slip back to where they started (or pretty close to it) is very high. This slipping often leads to all the things one might expect: frustration, hopelessness about change, lack of confidence, even concern on the part of employers about an employee’s English-based performance. There can also be a sense of wasting their money on earlier lessons. I’m in the accent modification field because I want to encourage students, to help them gain confidence. So I try hard to discourage the possibility of slippage.

Of course, sometimes going home suddenly (even for an extended period of time) is necessary. If someone gets started training in the United States and needs to go home before things are solid with their accent modification, here are some of many things to do to help minimize the slippage:

  1. Plan out where/when to have conversations every day with a native English speaker, whether by Skype, in person, or in an establishment frequented by native English speakers.
  2. Have access to and use (every day) audio books produced with a solid native American English speaking narrator. Choose topics of interest  – librarians are good resources for suggesting audio books.
  3. Listen (every day) to American English news, if it’s available – news feeds can be accessed in most areas.
  4. Talk out loud in English, even if no one is there to talk back. This keeps the mind engaged in the English speaking process. And, of course, listen to what is being said in the process. (Don’t ignore yourself!)

And, of course, bring along notes taken from accent modification lessons, reviewing them from time to time to stay on track. Keep your spirits up on return, knowing that catching back up to where one left off, even if things slip, is much faster than making the original changes.

And have a wonderful trip!

CTA wordpress corrected© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.