It takes a lot of people to help someone modify your 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!”
“I’LL BE GOING BACK TO MY HOME COUNTRY in a month for two months,” someone interested in accent modification lessons told me last week, . “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. It can be disappointing to students to hear that, and, of course, I’ll start with a new student who’s soon going back home if they are really firm about it, but I do tend to discourage it. Here’s my thinking about it, based on decades of experience:
I recommend that students get started in training/lessons when they have a pretty good idea that they’ll be in the United States for a solid two to six months after getting started. If a student goes back to their home country with only a month 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 often 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. There can also be a sense of wasting their money on earlier lessons. I’m in the accent modification field because I want to encourage students, to help them gain confidence. So I try hard to discourage the possibility of slippage.
Of course, sometimes going home suddenly (even for an extended period of time) is necessary. If someone gets started training in the United States 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 audio 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!