Accent Modification/English Pronunciation Instruction: Sometimes it gets harder before it gets better! What?!!

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!

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Accent Modification: Asking Native English Speakers for Feedback

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!”

English Pronunciaton Assessment: What it looks like, how it works

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!

 

 

English Pronunciation Training: Going home again

“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:

  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 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 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!

 

English Pronunciation: You “R” free to choose

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.

English Pronunciation/Accent Modification: For the Trill of It!

Most of the 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 a solid trill. They understand that, in order to sound authentic in any language that uses the trill phonemically, they need to acquire it. The trill is the rolling “rrrrr” commonly found in Spanish words, 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’m writing this to say that there is HOPE! Everyone I have taught whose goal is the trill has been able to pick it up within 1 1/2 hours. Yes, it is effortful. Yes, it requires concentration. Yes, there is some sloppy spitting  at first. Yes, it sometimes requires seven or eight different approaches to grasping it, but those approaches all happen, in sequence, within an hour or so. 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 made it happen, with some guidance.

So it’s rrrrreally do-able! And it’s worth it! For the trill of it!

English Pronunciation Training and the IPA: Our charted territory

It has a pretty sterile feel to it, doesn’t it? The IPA (International Phonetc Alphabet)? And the vowel and consonant charts? Hmmm….are they really necessary for the learning process? I acknowledge it: When a student first sees the charts on the table in front of us, their eyes somewhat glaze over…..But, 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. 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, 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.

My IPA charts are old, raggedy, stained, crumpled, but visible, and I leave them that way, so students know – really know – that others have come before them and struggled, studied, and made progress. Okay, yes, I do replace them after a while, but the ones I’m using 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.