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!

© 2015-2020  Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

Don’t Fear the American “R”: Options from Your Accent Modification Tutor

It's your choice!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  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. It is a sincere challenge for many non-native English speakers to acquire a Standard American “R,” but it can certainly be done. I’ve taught some students who have nailed it within five minutes; others, it’s taken a few months, with repeated reinforcement not to revert to their native curl, or throaty fricative. It is always incredibly gratifying to help a student in the “R.” And some students need to explore their options.

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.

© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

Rolling with Your “R”s: For the Trill of It in Accent Modification!

pexels-photo-91227Most of the accent modification teaching I do is with students whose first language is not English. But from time to time, a native English speaker asks me about how to acquire and consistently produce a solid trill.  They understand that, in order to sound authentic in any language that uses the trill phonemically, they need to have it down. The trill is the rolling “rrrrr” commonly found in Spanish, and it can be very hard to pick up. I’ve had people say they’ve been trying for decades, and had given up. I’ve even had people tell me that they have been told to give up – that they  are genetically unable to produce a trill. I don’t know if there is a genetic inability among some people to produce a trill, but I know I’ve never taught someone who had that. Or, if they had it, they were – by some miracle – able to change their genetics!! Amazing! <smile>

Everyone I have taught whose goal is the trill has been able to pick it up within one or two hours. Yes, it is effortful. Yes, it requires concentration. Yes, there is some sloppy spitting  at first! (No worries!)  Yes, it sometimes requires seven or eight different, creative approaches to grasp it, but those approaches all happen, in sequence, within a couple of hours. Seriously, there has always been a way, using the right approach. And, of course, the key is approaching it with humor and a depth of patience on both sides. And, at the moment of getting it – often surprised – the student produces a trill…”Is that it?!” Yes, that’s it! Celebration, disbelief..it’s a wonderful moment. “Let’s do it again!” we both say. They’ve got it and go off sounding authentic and accomplished. Because, after all, they – and their newly nimble tongue – made it happen, with some guidance. (Side note: the human tongue can seem like an entity within the mouth that can’t be tamed, that only does certain things and not others. The tongue has eight muscles, and all can be trained to do what is needed by the speaker!)

The keys to successful trilling are: the right amount of tongue tension, the correct tongue angle, the correct position of the tongue, and the best use of the air flowing out of the mouth at just the right time, and the adding of voicing to the process when those other elements are solidly in place. If you are practicing this yourself, pay additional attention to engaging your diaphragm, as this will help modulate/control the air that your tongue is going to catch. Yes, lots of loving parts, but very exciting once it’s been mastered!

So it’s rrrreally do-able! And it’s trrrruly trilling when it happens!

© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): Why We Use IPA Charts during Accent Modification Training

Image of IPA vowel chart - accent instructionWhen an accent modification student first sees the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) charts on the table in front of us, their eyes somewhat glaze over..they do  have a pretty sterile, oddball look to them, I acknowledge that. Hmmm…are they really necessary for the learning process? I suggest, yes, they are really necessary. I refer to these charts constantly during lessons. I roll them out, place them on the table half-way through the very first lesson, after the assessment. I lay them out at the start of every following lesson. And they are the last things I put away at the end of a lesson. I teach the students the lay of the land of those charts – both vowel and consonant charts –  and students relate to them, with increasing curiosity and ownership of their learning. It really does help.

The symbols are the merest bit unusual, but it always heartens me when a student starts warming up to the process, and voluntarily learns the symbols that are key to their individual accent modification. In studying together, the charts become a focal point for movement between and among sounds. A goal, an adventure, an effort supported by the documented reality called “pronunciation.” It seems to offer students the support of knowing they are not alone in this learning process, this strenuous effort for change. Frequently, after some familiarity with the IPA, a student asks about the origins of the IPA…”Who came up with this?” they ask with amusement and delight. (The answer: Alexander Ellis, Henry Sweet, Daniel Jones, and Paul Passy, in the late 19th century.)

My IPA charts are fully visible, encased in plastic, and are also old, a bit crumpled, and I leave them that way, so students know – really know – that others have come before them and struggled, studied, and made progress using these charts. Okay, yes, I do replace them after a while, but the ones I’m using right now are ten years old. That’s ten years of shared curiosity and amusement, countless students who have handled these particular charts, pointed to the karat symbol, asking, “Is that what I’m going for?” I nod. “Oh!” they say. “I get it!” That karat’s presence helps them nail that phoneme. Very exciting.

So I look forward to sitting with you, the student, or with your family member, friend, neighbor, or colleague, who is making the effort to modify their accent. Peering together at this system, these charts, these worn tools of reference and learning. “Oh, I get it!” And you will get it. You will.

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© 2015-2020 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.