English Pronunciation: Sometimes it Gets Harder Before it Gets Better! What?!

Male tutoring female studentAlmost 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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© 2015-2018 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!”

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© 2015-2018 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.

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© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

Starting Accent Training but Visiting Your Country? Tips on How to Keep Your Progress

airplane-“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:

  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 audio 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 your 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!

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Don’t Fear the American “R”: Options from Your Accent Modification Tutor

its-your-choiceWhen 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.

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© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): Why We Use IPA Charts during Accent Modification Training

IPA_vowel_chart_2005When 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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© 2015-2018 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!

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© 2015-2018 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.