Almost always, within a couple of months, 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 REALLY IMPROVING!!!!
Why does this bump down sometimes happen? It has to do with the listeners. People who talk with (listen to) non-native speakers of English tend to listen to those folks using a 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, they SOMETIMES are 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”…..so what am I hearing?”)
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!
Everyone 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 dread 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.
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!
It takes a lot of people to help someone modify their accent towards Standard American English. My role: I meet with students twice a week, assess, teach, support, educate, help to motivate, problem solve when things get “stuck,” and then some. The students’ role: practice, listen to their speech, focus, expose themselves to native speech as much as possible, and – major one here – ENLIST THE ASSISTANCE OF OTHER NATIVE SPEAKERS.
This last part 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 come across as judgmental or mean-spirited. So we 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.
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. 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!”
“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.
I always discourage students from recording themselves in order to catch their pronunciation mistakes. Why? Because it’s your primary job, as a student, to learn to hear yourself while you are speaking. And if you become accustomed to relying on recording, that very important feedback loop is compromised – never developed, or developed inaccurately.
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.
So here we are, sitting together for the first time. 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 range of speech sounds so I can get a comprehensive idea of where you are now and where we need to go with lessons.
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 your modification practice. 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 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!
“I’LL BE GOING BACK TO MY HOME COUNTRY in a month for two months,” someone told me last week, interested in Accent Modification training. “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.
I recommend that students get started in training/lessons when they have a pretty good idea that they’ll be in the USA for a solid three to six months after getting started. If a student goes back to their home country with only a month or two 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 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..
Of course, sometimes going home suddenly (even for an extended period of time) is necessary. If someone gets started training in the USA 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:
- 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.
- 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 books.
- Listen (every day) to American English news, if it’s available – news feeds can be accessed in most areas.
- 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 the 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!
When students start accent modification with a native language that does not have an “R” that fits with the standard American English “R,” I set about helping the student explore their options. The standard American English “R” is very difficult to nail down for many people: The tongue is ambiguously placed, and requires the right amount of tension, the right length, with the right amount of lip rounding. Absent any of these (and other) elements, the sound that beckons forth is interesting, but not quite an “R” sound.
So there’s a choice we explore together. Whether or not the standard American “R” is do-able, easy, difficult, worth it, too hard, not worth it at all. And, if it’s pretty doable, we proceed with that training. But if the student or I have a true sense, after many tries, that it’s just too hard, I support them to produce a substitute “R” in the form of a curled “R” – easy to teach, easy to pick up. Some students think the curled “R” is a speech impediment in English, but it’s really not – it’s used plenty by many perfectly articulate Americans whose native language is English. The curled “R” is easily understood as an “R,” as compared to the vague, loosely articulated attempted standard American “R.”
We do “recheck” from time to time: Is the standard American “R” accessible now, after some other training has happened? Is it absolutely necessary for professional or personal reasons to support the student to adopt a standard American “R”? If so, for either of these situations, we proceed, sometimes haltingly, with getting the standard American “R.”
Sometimes students who want accent modification lessons hesitate before that first call to me, having gotten the impression that the standard American “R” is too hard and hands-down necessary. So I encourage people to explore it as an option, but not to feel defeated if it’s just not happening or going to happen. There are always other aspects of students’ speech we can modify that ensure they will be understood all the time. There “R” options, so let’s not let that “R” get in the way.