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!

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© 2015-2021 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!

 

© 2015-2021 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!”

© 2015-2021 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.

© 2015-2021 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.