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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© 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.

English Pronunciation Training Goals: Should You Modify or Should You Eliminate?

change-948008_960_720“I want to have no foreign accent at all. Help me eliminate my accent!” I often hear new accent modification students say. It makes sense that anyone who has trouble being understood would think they need to get rid of their non-Standard American accent in order to be understood, but it’s really not true at all. You can be understood all the time and still have your accent, your culture, your own voice.

In fact, everyone has an accent. So there’s no such thing as eliminating an accent. We all speak, and we all speak in our culturally-trained way, or even in a modified way. But we all have an accent. And I love and appreciate different accents – accents reflect who we are, where we come from, what our lives are like. A variety of accents in our world makes this world more interesting, from where I sit. Indeed, the idea of living in a world in which everyone sounds the same seems rather dull to me! But we will work together to modify the accent you have.

So, as we move along in accent modification (English pronunciation) lessons, we emphasize working on the priority sounds that make you understood, tweaking the sounds that get in the way. We assess as we go along, we shift our techniques as you improve. And you do improve – in a short period of time (usually a couple of months), you will notice people are asking you to repeat yourself less and less. People are asking you, “Where are you from?” as their first question less often.  This change is heartening for students. Your confidence builds. You know that, when you speak, engage, start conversations, it will be easier and easier.

Of course, if you absolutely must get to a place of sounding Standard American (perhaps you aspire to be a radio announcer with certain characteristics, or your workplace insists on it), we can get you there, too. This is a personal choice, which I support the student to make. And, commonly, a student starts accent modification lessons wanting to eliminate rather than modify, and then changes that goal as they notice improvement in communication with others. And, conversely, sometimes a student starts wanting to modify toward being understood, becomes heartened by their progress, and decides to move their goal towards the Standard American accent. Both are infinitely doable. The latter (moving to a fully Standard American English accent) does take longer – up to two years.

Whatever your choice, I’m here, with decades of experience, to help you reach your goal.

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© 2015-2018 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!CTA wordpress corrected

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