Monday, April 28, 2008

Can I really lose my accent?

The phrases that we use to describe learning an American English accent are misleading. We don't really need to "lose" our accents. What the goal is, is to learn an new way of pronouncing words, so that when we want to we can sound American.

Building on the sound system from your first language you can build up an American sound system. This may seem similar, lose you accent or gain an accent. Many will tell you that it is just a matter of semantics (a new way of saying the same old thing). But that is inaccurate. When we say we will lose our accents it reinforces cultural and psychological blocks to learning pronunciation. Our speech either subconsciously or consciously is deeply a part of who we are. To say that we will "lose" our accent is incorrect and slightly insulting.

In the end you would still like the answer, whether or not you are losing or gaining. If the question really is "can I sound American?", then the answer is yes. Of course you can.

It does take practice because it is not just an intellectual feat, but a physical one as well. You need to first grasp the information, what it takes to execute the sounds and features of spoken American English, then you must get comfortable with the changes physically.

Lets compare it to learning golf or tennis. The instructor must help you conceptualize how to execute the stroke, then you have to practice what you learned. Teach your muscles the new movement. When you first try the new stroke, it may feel awkward, you need to think about each movement necessary to execute the new stroke, the results might not be as good as with your old stroke. However with practice the new stroke becomes more natural and you find the new way is easier, and more effective.

This is similar to speech because speech takes the coordination of thought and muscles to execute. Luckily though practice comes easily because we all talk everyday! And I promise no sore muscles as with learning a sport!

Friday, April 25, 2008

5 ways to improve your intelligability in English

This short list of ways to improve your spoken English intelligibility can be implemented right now. Every time you speak English is a new opportunity to practice speaking with your American accent!

1. Don't speak slowly. No I don't mean rush through all you need to say, what I mean is don' ......a.....time. you will drive the listener to distraction. What you want to to chunk your words......into thought groups.....pausing between of words. This will give your speech more flow and allows your listeners to keep up with you. Pause longer if you feel that your pronunciation is very difficult to understand.

2. Do not leave off word endings. Even if this slows down your rate or interrupts your flow. Americans are very into time lines. We need to know when things happened and those word ending tell us exactly that. Inflectional endings are packed with linguistic information!

3. Move your mouth more. There is a tendency when you feel unsure of your pronunciation to mumble or "swallow" your words. Move your mouth, notice how Americans open their mouths wide when they say certain vowel sounds, and stick their tongues out of their mouth for th. Don't be afraid to try to be clear. If what your doing doesn't feel any different then you are not doing anything any differently!

4. Make fun of American speech patterns. What I mean here, is speak in your native language as if you were imitating an American. The intonation and stress pattern is most likely pretty close to that of an American. So go ahead put on your best American accent, you are probably correct.

5. Use what you know. No matter how much or how little information you have on English pronunciation it is time to put it into use. The trick is that you cannot think about every word you are going to say while trying to focus on a conversation. At first try incorporating it in rote sentences such as "how are you?" or "one coffee, milk and sugar please".

Thursday, April 10, 2008

What is an accent?

An accent is carrying over of the first phonemic system and discourse rhythm into English. Now the goal is to understand the American English phonetic system and discourse features.

However it is more then just a mental exercises it is a physical one as well. Once you have been able to identify the differences you need to be able to incorporate the new system into your English speech. On the sound level you should be able to feel and hear the difference between the American pronunciation and your execution of the sound.

English has 52 sounds, luckily only about half of this number is going to accent any first language. Now how the sounds will affect the persons production and the sounds that will be affected is determined by their first phonemic system. To even an untrained ear, there are distinct differences between a person with a Russian accent and that of a Spanish accent. That difference reflects the phonemic system the speaker is carrying over into their spoken English.

Stay focused on only the sounds of English that are troublesome, don't learn the production of all 52 sounds if only 20 are impacting your speech. Get the information on what changes need to be made in order to approximate the English production of the sound. For instance the Russian speaker will produce /v/ as /w/, while Spanish speaker will produce /v/ a /b/, while many Asian speakers do not find the /v/ to be challenging at all. In the case of Russian speaker and Spanish speaker they will need differing ideas for the American production of /v/, and the Asian speaker should not be wasting time with this sound at all.

Of course on the conversational level, or the discourse features the same will apply. One quick tip is to imitate an American speaking in your native language. The rhythm you use will most likely be quite close to what American English speakers are actually doing. This is why when you walk past two people speaking, even if you can't make out the words, you may be able to guess what language they are using. It is their intonation, rhythm and word stress that gives them away!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Learning styles

Teaching others how to be accent trainers provides me with a great opportunity to reflect on each client I have worked with. The experience that I have gained is of great value. Each client has displayed their own unique characteristics making each class interesting. There are different learning styles and each approach needs to be tweaked in order to best reach the client.

I think most can fit into three major categories.

1. Passive learners

These clients generally feel that the instructors job is to pass on the information and their job is absorb the information. This is fantastic for instructional times, as when I am teaching a new concept and the features of that concept. They absorb the lesson and really hear what I am saying.

The downside of course is in application of the concept taught. It is the goal of each of my classes to make sure that the client understands the concept AND can apply it to their speech. This is application step is of great importance, as I will want them to practice during the week between classes and I want to be sure they are practicing correctly.

It is important to help this client feel comfortable speaking up in the session. I give highly structured practice so they will feel "safe" answering each question. I use mock-up schedules, situational paragraphs followed by questions. They are asked to answer the questions using the new concept they have learned. I save any critical feedback until the end of their speaking turn, making sure to give enough positive feedback to let them know that I do hear their improvements as well as their errors.

2. Free-wheeling

These clients are enthusiastic. They like to talk and know exactly what they would like to work on. The advantage to this client is that you never have to worry about material or providing motivation. The challenge is to get them to sit through a full lesson or helping them create a good foundation of discourse skills.

I use mainly their materials that are related to their everyday conversational situation. I also explain why they need to complete each step that leads up to the conversational level. Knowing why they are working on different areas other then the one they have identified as their challenge can be very helpful. For example if they are concerned about leaving of word endings, I will work on word and sentence stress to help them adjust their timing, reducing the need to drop word endings to save time in a sentence. When they are able to make this connection between the two goals their focus increases.

3. I don't want to be here!

Some clients don't want to be in class. They have a lot going on in their lives, or their company simply forced them into a class. For these clients motivation is the name of the game. Helping them add value to speaking standard American speech is the first order of business. Plenty of non-critical feedback and opportunities for them to recognize their own improvement can keep these clients on track.

I schedule much time in for them to practice during class time, because chances are they will not have the time outside of class. It does mean that less concepts or sounds will be covered in one course but it reduces both their frustration and mine when I don't assign work that they can't or won't get to before the next class.

There are many things that need to be assessed before a course can begin, but learning style needs to be taken into consideration if you want to see success. That is why there is no set curriculum for a course load. You must assess the individual their goal (to be more intelligible or to be linguistically invisible) what their objectives are ( linking, word stress, phonemes?) and how best to approach the instruction to be delivered.