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

Image of IPA vowel chart - accent instructionWhen 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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© 2017-2022 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

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Accent Modification: Your Brain Takes Up the Cause for You!

brain-5It happens with movie stars’ names, and it happens with the accent modification process. Okay, let’s start with the movie star: You’re trying to think of the name of a famous actress in a movie you just saw. You’re thinking, “She played the main character, she’s famous, in lots of movies, big smile…good grief… I can’t believe I can’t remember her name…” You think about it actively for about ten minutes, and then, frustrated, you give up, thinking, “Oh, well. It’ll come to me.” AND YOU’RE RIGHT! It WILL come to you! YOUR BRAIN DOESN’T GIVE UP!!! Your brain, frankly, doesn’t like ambiguity one bit.

At an odd time, OUT OF THE BLUE, like at 2 o’clock in the morning, or the next day while you’re having a lively conversation with someone about, say, the best fertilizer. And you shout, “JULIA ROBERTS! IT’S JULIA ROBERTS! Oh yay!” And you know, quite profoundly, that YOUR BRAIN NEVER GAVE UP ON THE PROCESS OF FIGURING IT OUT FOR YOU. Sure, the person you’re talking with about fertilizer won’t have a clue what Julia Roberts has to do with fertilizer, but, once you explain what just came to you, they’ll recognize the phenomenon. We all recognize the phenomenon: The brain takes up the cause.

That’s how accent modification works. The brain KEEPS working at the issue even when you’re not doing it actively. Once the brain knows what it needs to work on, it does it. It works between lessons. It works nights and weekends. It works while you are thinking about other things. The brain likes to makes things clear, so when you have decided to work on your accent, and we assess and go towards new sounds, the brain TAKES UP THE CAUSE.

Sometimes we will be working on a specific speech context (say, “r” in a consonant blend) and I notice something else that we needn’t focus on, but is important for you to get to work on. I’ll commonly say, “I’d like us to give this to your brain to work on. Don’t worry about.” And I explain what I think the brain would do well to take up the cause on, and your brain goes off and does it. It’s kind of like multi-tasking, but more truly brilliant. And next lesson, the student comes in, having made progress on that matter, without consciously working on it!

It’s a wonderful thing, really. And it’s based on real neurobiology, and on good, ongoing, repeated assessing of your speech, along with focused, clear, creative teaching, and an interactive learning process. Working together, all three of us: You, me, and your magnificent, active, lively brain.

I look forward to helping your brain take up your cause: being understood all the time!

© 2017-2022 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.

How to Modify Your Accent Using Your Imagination

Indian Girl White Dress Female Girl Woman IndianThe first thing most accent modification students say to me when they start working on their English pronunciation is, “But I’ve tried before so many times to reduce my accent, and I just can’t get it!” I try to share with them the confidence I have in their ability to change their accent, to be understood all the time. The confidence that it works, when we put together their commitment with my decades of experience and individualized, creative teaching methods. IT CAN BE DONE. Does it happen overnight? Of course not. But SOMETHING HAPPENS QUICKLY – awareness happens quickly (for some things, sometimes overnight), and I have heard from many students that within a month or so, they are much less frequently asked to repeat themselves, and their confidence rises. They begin to have hope that they will be understood all the time. They enter conversations with employers, employees, patients, students, store clerks, etc., with greater confidence. This part I’m talking about here is the active practice, learning where to put the tongue, and other very tangible techniques.

But, then, there’s daydreaming, which can move you along, too.

A technique I suggest to students who are blessed with very active, creative imaginations,, is to daydream themselves speaking standard American English. Students sometimes seem perplexed by this idea…”How” they wonder aloud “can I imagine something I cannot do in real life?” Valid question, indeed, but they are often surprised by how much it helps. The imagining doesn’t need to be perfect, and wouldn’t be for a while. But it’s the process of letting the mind create speech, correcting itself, exploring, and redoing that exercises the mind in a different way when actual speech is “turned off.” By traveling with the mind, one learns how much one already knows but has tucked away, not being used.

TRY IT! Go ahead! Choose a topic you enjoy. Truly enjoy. Not something that will bore you to sleep while daydreaming, but something that lifts you into great joy. Say, a sport you find mesmerizing, an accomplishment of your child, something you did that made you proud, something in the sciences that your find fascinating. Anything vivid for you. Set aside fifteen minutes, relax. You can either close your eyes, or keep your eyes open, and look upward, distantly unfocused, and start your inner speech. Listen to your voice. Stop and correct yourself, repeat. Just have an exploratory time with it.

When you’re done, make note of how it went, how you feel the speech you produced was. What was the daydreaming like? You might even admire the excellence of your daydreamed speech! I’ve heard students say that.

Regardless of how fluent you are in your daydreaming, it gives you a chance to talk yourself creatively and quietly towards being understood all the time! And you’ll start by understanding yourself because, after all, you’ll know what you are saying! Enjoy and daydream!

© 2017-2022 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 native English speakers – 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!”

© 2017-2022 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.

© 2017-2022 Helen Kobek and helenkobek.com. All rights reserved.