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!”

Accent Modification/English PronunciationTraining: To Record or Not to Record?

“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.

I always discourage students from recording themselves in order to catch their pronunciation mistakes. Why? Because it’s your primary job, as a student, to learn to hear yourself while you are speaking. And if you become accustomed to relying on recording, that very important feedback loop is compromised – never developed, or developed inaccurately.

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.

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 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.

Accent Modification: “Why is ‘of’ pronounced ‘uhv’? WHY?!!!” – (corrected post.)

(Ed. note: Thank-you to the many readers who reported the typos. I appreciate that so many people are reading my posts – Lesson learned – Warmly, Helen)

Ah, yes, the really sensible “why” questions about all the things in English that defy rules, guidelines, intuition, if not gravity. 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 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 the Ferrari they just bought is an undriveable knock-off.

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 job interviews, in hopes, plans, and the future.

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! How great! What is it?!”

Sure! Here’s what it is: It’s “of,” “bargain,” “create,” and “know,” among piles of others. Enjoy!