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.