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What you need to know about accent reduction

People often ask me: "Can I really change my accent?" One common misconception is that accent reduction cannot be learned in adulthood. In fact, before linguists knew better, they posited that people could not learn to speak English with near-native pronunciation beyond say, age seven. The assumption was that after that age our brains became "rigid," preventing us from altering our foreign accents, or for that matter, from acquiring a second language with near-native proficiency. The truth is that our brains are much more flexible than we gave them credit for. Neuroscience has revolutionized our thinking about how adults learn a second language. Today we know that not only can people reduce their accents, but they can also acquire near-native proficiency with the right approach and training.  

  Over the years, I have adapted my own teaching approach accordingly.  We show you how to use your tongue, teeth, and lips to pronounce consonant and vowel sounds. We help you find the points of articulation for each sound. You also learn and practice using your voice (or not) when pronouncing consonants (voice for "d," no voice for "t").  But pronouncing consonants and vowels accurately is only part of accent reduction.  We also teach you how to use the music (pitch and intonation), rhythm, and stress (the louder part of a word or phrase).  Every language has its own rhythm and "music," and English is no exception.  English speakers highlight their key points by raising their pitch on key words. I often tell my clients that in terms of its rhythm, English is a "stretch-squeeze" language.  We lengthen certain parts of words and reduce others, rather than giving equal emphasis to each syllable.  We use different intonation to make statements, ask questions (two different ways) clarify, indicate surprise, emphasize and more. Pacing is also important. We break our speech up into word groups or "chunks," and each chunk has one or more stressed words and pitch jumps. 

Many clients have told me that their native English speaking family members, friends, or coworkers can't help them correct pronunciation errors.  This is because native speakers of any language are not aware of the rules of pronunciation because  they acquired a native accent without studying how to do so. Those who have mastered the rules of English pronunciation have generally studied them while pursuing a degree in linguistics or TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language). Speech therapists and pathologists may have had training in altering language habits, but their focus is usually on clients with speech impairments or impediments.

Learning the rules of pronunciation (yes, there are many) enables speakers to make the connection between other aspects of language (like grammar, spelling patterns, punctuation) and accent reduction.   As you can see, speaking involves a number of different components, and a good accent reduction program shows you how they work together. I have written original course materials for accent reduction that have been used in corporate training at different companies and with individuals and small groups at English training schools. The curriculum clearly explains the rules of English pronunciation, the points of articulation for producing consonant and vowel sounds, and much more. It provides many examples and lots of practice. Using these materials at English Advantage, we help many clients succeed. 

As you improve your accent, you will become better understood and more confident in your speaking skills, and in turn, be a better communicator.                                                                                                                                                                  

Susan OsuchComment
The best language learning experience

If you're reading this, you're probably curious about finding a good teacher or becoming a better one.  As a native English speaker who has studied French, Greek, and Spanish, I can speak to my own experience with learning another language.  As a veteran master teacher of English as as a Second Language (ESL), I can also speak to how to provide the best language learning experience.

When I studied French in high school, very little time was spent on authentic language.  Instead, we learned  "textbook French."  The focus was on grammar, writing, conjugating verbs, and memorizing vocabulary.  Almost no time was spent on actual conversation.  Needless to say, most students were not inspired. Not only that, during my semester abroad in France, I was ill-prepared to understand and speak the language.  A French friend remarked, "Your grammar is good, but you sound like a book."


The next language I studied was modern Greek.  My first teacher's material was dry and irrelevant.  Again, we were conjugating verbs, learning isolated vocabulary, and translating dated texts; not communicating in Greek.

As you can see, the best language experiences do not come about by rote learning or by ignoring the learner's need to communicate. They do not include boring, stale material, nor do they separate language from communication.  Neither do they involve teachers who do all the talking, while students participate only by filling out worksheets or by repeating vocabulary words but never learning how to use them.

In fact, the best language experience for learners studying English or any second language needs to be lively, relevant, and meaningful.  The best teachers bring infectious enthusiasm and add personality, both their own and the students', to their lessons.  They use fresh ideas and materials that appeal to and benefit the students.  They provide the connection that students need to make the experience their own. 

Of course, the best teachers not only know their subject well but find ways to explain difficult concepts so that learners understand. They are resourceful:  if one way doesn't work to get a point across or to help a learner perform successfully, they find another way.  The best teachers use a variety of techniques and activities to deliver curriculum. They frequently get "off the page" when the material at hand is incomplete or needs to be supplemented by clarification, examples, or practice. They encourage their students to participate and express themselves.  The best teachers answer questions completely and understand that there are no stupid questions.  If they don't know the answer to a question, they admit it.  They promise the students they will find out the answer and get back to them. The best teachers don't dominate the lesson.  They use teaching time as a learning lab where there is a back and forth between teacher and student(s) and among classmates. They use mistakes as teaching tools to remind learners that the classroom is the place to make them, rather than in public or at work. The best teachers are good listeners. They pay special attention to learners as they express themselves and then give them valuable feedback. This includes pointing out mistakes and asking students to make corrections, and if that is not possible, modeling the correct language.  It includes giving students a more conventional way to express an idea, offering more appropriate vocabulary, or  modeling an acceptable sociolinguistic form, such as "Could you check on Adam?" versus "Go check on Adam." The best language teachers understand that people learn by doing, so it follows that students should be producing written or oral communication during each lesson.  The best teachers are patient and encouraging.  When their students are frustrated or unhappy with their English, they remind them that while the desired results may not happen today, they will happen with time and practice. The best teachers can customize lessons to students' needs, interests and levels.  They meet any given individuals where they are and help them get to where they want to go.  At English Advantage, we have some of the best teachers, who provide unique learning experiences.

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