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!

© 2015-2019 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.

© 2015-2019 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!

© 2015-2019 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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© 2015-2019 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

“Why is ‘of’ Pronounced ‘uhv’? WHY?!”: Perspectives from Your Accent Modification Tutor

face_expression_surprise-1090238Ah, yes, the really sensible “why” questions about all the things in English that defy rules, guidelines, intuition, and frustrate accent modification students to no end. Often, when I start teaching accent modification to a new student, and I witness their frustration at the lack of reasoned guidelines, I have an urge to apologize for the strain of it all. I really do understand it, being a secondary speaker of print-to-speech logical languages like Spanish and French. And sometimes I do apologize, wincing, “Yes, I’m so sorry. It makes no sense.” And I nod into the student’s shock and dismay at what they’ve been saying “wrong” for twenty-five years, as if I’ve just told them that there are no rules anywhere about anything that matters.

And we know this “unruliness” of English is everywhere the student is or wants to be: in verbs, in nouns, in adjectives, at work, in friendships, on the phone, in person, in job interviews, in hopes, plans, and in the future. The unruliness is in casual or relaxed speech, and in formal talk. It’s everywhere, indeed.

Here is an interesting thing to consider, though, around the illogic of English pronunciation: Although it produces plentiful “uh-ohs,” embarrassed look-backs, and a sense of trickiness, it also pushes all students’ minds to stay wide open in listening and gathering information. It keeps the mind and the ears yawning wide. And, if there is a curiosity about it, which we encourage, the unruliness can be met with great expectation and humor. In real fact, some of the great enemies of learning anything are lock-down, predictability, dread, and caution, while some of the greatest friends of learning anything are openness, curiosity, a touch of whimsy, surprise, and enjoyment.

So I encourage Accent Modification learners this way: Try not to take these revelations like a sucker punch, but like a kooky kind of gift. A gift that you have opened up, and exclaimed, “Wow! That’s wonderful! Thank you! I’ve always wanted one of these! How great! What is it?!”

Indeed, that gift is the numerous ways of pronouncing “oo,” and “ea,” and “ough.” It’s “good” and “food.” It’s “bead” and “head.”  It’s “tough,” and it’s “cough,” and “through.”  And, yes, it’s “what!?” pronounced as “wuht!?” And these gifts, these challenges, keep the student the merest bit off-center, the merest bit off-balance, which requires the student to pay close attention or risk toppling. If the student pays close attention, they will sip up all sorts of unruly examples in an ordinary day.

Sure! Here’s what it is: It’s “of,” “bargain,” “create,” and “know” (versus “now”) among piles of other gifts. Open them and…..enjoy!

© 2015-2019 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

Accent Modification: Your Brain Takes Up the Cause for You!

brain-5It happens with movie stars’ names, and it happens with the accent modification process. Okay, let’s start with the movie star: You’re trying to think of the name of a famous actress in a movie you just saw. You’re thinking, “She played the main character, she’s famous, in lots of movies, big smile…good grief… I can’t believe I can’t remember her name…” You think about it actively for about ten minutes, and then, frustrated, you give up, thinking, “Oh, well. It’ll come to me.” AND YOU’RE RIGHT! It WILL come to you! YOUR BRAIN DOESN’T GIVE UP!!! Your brain, frankly, doesn’t like ambiguity one bit.

At an odd time, OUT OF THE BLUE, like at 2 o’clock in the morning, or the next day while you’re having a lively conversation with someone about, say, the best fertilizer. And you shout, “JULIA ROBERTS! IT’S JULIA ROBERTS! Oh yay!” And you know, quite profoundly, that YOUR BRAIN NEVER GAVE UP ON THE PROCESS OF FIGURING IT OUT FOR YOU. Sure, the person you’re talking with about fertilizer won’t have a clue what Julia Roberts has to do with fertilizer, but, once you explain what just came to you, they’ll recognize the phenomenon. We all recognize the phenomenon: The brain takes up the cause.

That’s how accent modification works. The brain KEEPS working at the issue even when you’re not doing it actively. Once the brain knows what it needs to work on, it does it. It works between lessons. It works nights and weekends. It works while you are thinking about other things. The brain likes to makes things clear, so when you have decided to work on your accent, and we assess and go towards new sounds, the brain TAKES UP THE CAUSE.

Sometimes we will be working on a specific speech context (say, “r” in a consonant blend) and I notice something else that we needn’t focus on, but is important for you to get to work on. I’ll commonly say, “I’d like us to give this to your brain to work on. Don’t worry about.” And I explain what I think the brain would do well to take up the cause on, and your brain goes off and does it. It’s kind of like multi-tasking, but more truly brilliant. And next lesson, the student comes in, having made progress on that matter, without consciously working on it!

It’s a wonderful thing, really. And it’s based on real neurobiology, and on good, ongoing, repeated assessing of your speech, along with focused, clear, creative teaching, and an interactive learning process. Working together, all three of us: You, me, and your magnificent, active, lively brain.

I look forward to helping your brain take up your cause: being understood all the time!

© 2015-2019 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

 

English Pronunciation Training Goals: Should You Modify or Should You Eliminate?

change-948008_960_720“I want to have no foreign accent at all. Help me eliminate my accent!” I often hear new accent modification students say. It makes sense that anyone who has trouble being understood would think they need to get rid of their non-Standard American accent in order to be understood, but it’s really not true at all. You can be understood all the time and still have your accent, your culture, your own voice.

In fact, everyone has an accent. So there’s no such thing as eliminating an accent. We all speak, and we all speak in our culturally-trained way, or even in a modified way. But we all have an accent. And I love and appreciate different accents – accents reflect who we are, where we come from, what our lives are like. A variety of accents in our world makes this world more interesting, from where I sit. Indeed, the idea of living in a world in which everyone sounds the same seems rather dull to me! But we will work together to modify the accent you have.

So, as we move along in accent modification (English pronunciation) lessons, we emphasize working on the priority sounds that make you understood, tweaking the sounds that get in the way. We assess as we go along, we shift our techniques as you improve. And you do improve – in a short period of time (usually a couple of months), you will notice people are asking you to repeat yourself less and less. People are asking you, “Where are you from?” as their first question less often.  This change is heartening for students. Your confidence builds. You know that, when you speak, engage, start conversations, it will be easier and easier.

Of course, if you absolutely must get to a place of sounding Standard American (perhaps you aspire to be a radio announcer with certain characteristics, or your workplace insists on it), we can get you there, too. This is a personal choice, which I support the student to make. And, commonly, a student starts accent modification lessons wanting to eliminate rather than modify, and then changes that goal as they notice improvement in communication with others. And, conversely, sometimes a student starts wanting to modify toward being understood, becomes heartened by their progress, and decides to move their goal towards the Standard American accent. Both are infinitely doable. The latter (moving to a fully Standard American English accent) does take longer – up to two years.

Whatever your choice, I’m here, with decades of experience, to help you reach your goal.

© 2015-2019 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.