Accent Reduction Training

What is Accent Reduction or Pronunciation Training? Let’s start by answering the question, “What is an accent?” An accent is a distinctive, complex system of pronunciation, usually based on the speaker’s native language and geographical, social, familial environment. We all speak with accents, and we all have attitudes about them. In the world of ESL (English as a Second Language) the term near-native English indicates the highest achievement, meaning that the L2 speaker sounds like a native speaker of an accepted standard accent.

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In this article, we discuss accent training: Why it can be surprisingly hard, and how to approach it. This article is intended for both teachers and learners of general and business English. We hope it will help you think more about this habit we call “our accent” and decide if your English accent is A-OK, or if it needs work.

Would you like to have a professional evaluation of your spoken English? Read more about The English Center’s Spoken English Test.

Are you looking for private accent reduction training?

Read more about English accent courses here. Courses are offered in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Amstelveen, online and at corporate locations.

Why is correct English pronunciation so hard?

Spoken language, when learned as a teen or an adult, is really a miracle of decoding symbols into meaningful sounds that match receiver expectations, and that’s not easy.

Why? Most of us learn a second language with our eyes, not with our ears. Thank goodness, that’s changing, but in many classrooms, learners still absorb language through books and documents rather than by listening. That means you are decoding letters. Words. Spelling. And while some languages provide consistent, predictable connections between letters and sounds, English sadly, does not.

English spelling: Are you kidding me?

English spelling is (often) dreadfully disconnected from English pronunciation. It’s almost like a sadist devised this language for maximal challenge. Well, talk to the Brits about that. 😉 In any case, please accept the fact that English pronunciation is often disconnected from English spelling. More about that later!

Babies do spoken language better.

Babies learn with their ears and therefore grow into expert native speakers. By the time reading has been added to their behavioral repertoire, the exact sounds and structures are perfectly encoded and not much disturbed by the unintuitive spellings associated with so many words.

While our adult brains are much slower and have to manage both sound and symbols, language learning, like eating your veggies, is good for you and your brain!

Request a free online intake appointment with an English Center trainer and learn more about how we approach spoken English training.

Learning English (or anything else) changes your brain!

According to this article in Discover Magazine, “Learning anything changes your brain, of course, at least a little bit. But learning a language does it in high gear. John Grundy, a neuroscientist at Iowa State University who specializes in bilingualism and the brain, explains that learning a new language causes extensive neuroplasticity in the brain. In other words, when you learn a new language, your brain gets rearranged, new connections are made and new pathways are formed.  

Grundy and his team have developed something called the bilingual anterior to posterior and subcortical shift model. That’s a mouthful, so they call it BAPSS, for short. The BAPSS model shows that in the early stages of learning a new language, most of the action takes place in the frontal lobes, in the anterior, or front, part of the brain. But as you get more fluent in your new language, the process shifts to parts of the brain that have to do with what Grundy calls “more automatic motor processing and automatic sensory information.” This is the point where you happily notice that you just read a phrase or answered a question in your new language without having to consciously translate.  Read the entire Discover article here.

In accent reduction training, you learn new habits that become “automatic behaviors.”

An ESL learner who wants to speak well and be easily understood must form new habits that are stronger than the old habits in order to sound better in conversation, meetings, etc. when there is no time to plan. Speech is an automatic behaviour. The speaker’s brain must KNOW, without any thought-delay, the correct way to make the sound with tongue, teeth, lips and throat all doing exactly the right thing in the moment. Just like riding a bike or driving a car. You know what to do, automatically.

Sound confusion.

Accent training clients often present with missing sounds, sound substitutions, and confusion about spelling and its relationship to pronunciation. Other common problems include poor or incorrect intonation, missing liaisons, and over pronunciation of schwas and other squeezed-out syllables, just to name a few things. Let’s consider a common problem sound. Meet the schwa.

The schwa is the most common English sound and yet it is often mispronounced. This sound is the sound you would make if you were punched in the stomach. It’s a primitive sound, a bit like a grunt. It’s also the sound English speakers make when they can’t think of what they want to say next. It’s a filler sound usually written as “ugh….”

To practice the schwa sound, try this target sentence, “Up the bluff, Bud runs with the cup of love” and speak the schwa vowel sound (ugh) consistently, across every word, regardless of the spelling. Can you do it? It helps to NOT look at the written words as you are speaking it.

To hear the schwa, watch The English Center’s short Schwa Pronunciation video at You Tube.

English pronunciation training takes some time.

Accent training requires identifying these pronunciation errors (old, “fossilized” errors) isolating those errors, helping the client hear the errors, providing information about how to make the sounds more correctly, and providing lots of practice material and opportunities so that new habits can be formed. The client must commit to self-correction, too. Accents cannot be “fixed” in one hour per week.

With accent reduction training, “the devil is in the details.”

I have found that good English accent training really does take drilling down on the details. Many people do not hear their errors, and even if they do, they have no idea about how to correct them. So accent teachers must be very willing to work on isolated sounds with simple exercises. The point is that, in the very beginning, the teacher should never use tongue twisters or anything terribly challenging or confusing. Minimal pairs can be used to help isolate differences, but initially, the learner must drill the correct sounds without a lot of interference.

English accent/pronunciation training and successive approximation.

Accent training is a process successive approximation, so keep it simple in the beginning, and repetitive, with lots of feedback. Just help the learner build new habits – new patterns – that can become unconscious. Yes, the goal is unconscious, automatic behavior.

The ESL pronunciation journey goes something like this:

  1. The speaker does not know what is wrong. The speaker uses spelling and/or their native language to decode English pronunciation.
  2. The speaker knows some things are wrong, but does not know how to fix them.
  3. The speaker can fix things, but conscious attention is required. The new habits are weaker than the old habits. Lots of practice and attention is required.
  4. The new habits triumph and replace the old ways. When no conscious attention is required, success! Near native English has been achieved.

Reference: Susan Cook, American Accent Training. (Unfortunately, this book may have gone out of print.)

Language music brings meaning.

It could be said that pronunciation training is very much like teaching someone to dance. It is all about a combination of physical actions that provide a particular, recognizable result. While the artistry is essential because language music / intonation delivers loads of meaning – the learner must achieve the nuts and bolts items as well. Teachers must be willing and able to “get in the weeds” on sound production and learners must be committed to lots of practice to achieve real change.

Is there one right way to speak English? One correct accent?

No. While the ESL world divides accents into two big categories, AE American English and BE British English, there are many more kinds of English accents, both national and regional.

In England, the 30+ dialect names/nicknames (which can overlap) include RP Received Pronunciation, BBC English, Posh, Estuary, Cockney, New Cockney, Geordie and Yorkshire, to name just a few.

In North America, you have standard AE, Canadian English, southern US English, New Jersey English, New York English (every borough has a sound) Boston English, Valley Girl English, Mid-Atlantic English, Texas English, to name just a few.

And of course there’s Australian English, New Zealand English, Irish English, Scottish English, Welsh English, South African English… and the list goes on.

Check out this article for Nederlanders about the Amerikaans-Engelse Uitspraak

Accent reduction training tips for learners.

  • Work with a native-speaker teacher who values good spoken English.
  • Choose a preferred accent: British English (BE) or American English(AE) or go for an international sound.
  • Understand rhoticity (Rs) in English and note that mid and final postion Rs sound different in BE and AE.
  • Become aware of vibrated and non-vibrated sounds.
  • Understand that you will have to form strong new habits to correct old errors.
  • Accept the fact that English pronunciation is disconnected from English spelling. 
  • Accept the fact that you have to relearn some things.
  • Retrain your brain to trigger the right mouth movements when you see or think of the word.  
  • Trust your teacher and your audio/video resources. Be a copycat. 
  • Be a child! Enjoy making new sounds, even the funny or difficult ones. 
  • Hear and copy the music of the language, especially word and sentence stress. 
  • Accept the schwa sound. It’s our most common vowel sound.  
  • Practice a lot! Be patient but strict with yourself. Every time you make a sound incorrectly, you reinforce the old (wrong) habit. You must build new habits so that the correct sound becomes automatic! When you don’t have to think about it anymore, that’s when you are speaking like a native!
  • Be patient and don’t give up. You can do this!

Accent reduction training tips for teachers.

  • Identify the errors. Help the speaker be aware.
  • Source instructions, books, video explanations and exercises that address the issue.
  • Become highly aware of your own experience (your articulators) when you produce the sounds of English. Make your own sound production processes conscious – and be able to describe and demonstrate those processes.
  • Provide guided, repetitive, “in the weeds” practice. Use pattern exercises so that the client repeats, repeats, repeats the correct sound(s), ultimately building the new, stronger habit.
  • Be kind but critical! Ignoring errors will not help the learner.
  • Stress the importance of continued practice and self-correction in order to retain the new, correct sounds.

For the accent geeks: meet your articulators.

Second language learning, such as ESL, is really an amazing feat that can create new brain connections and pathways in adult brains. And in the case of ESL accent training, our newly trained brains can tell our sound producers, which are called articulators, exactly what to do. FYI for you language geeks – the articulators include the tongue, lips, teeth, alveolar ridge, hard palate, soft palate, uvula pharyngeal wall and the vocal cords.

Perfection may not be the goal.

For many speakers, the goal does not have to be near-native English, it may just be spoken English that is understood by most people most of the time. But if you are going for your personal best – the CEFR C2 advanced near native level of spoken English – then be careful of over perfection. Or perhaps I should say that perfection does not mean perfection, because native speakers do not speak perfectly. To achieve true near-native status you have to flow and learn when to omit, reduce, connect, contract and to sound informal. If you want help with any of that, reach out to The English Center!

Brenda de Jong-Pauley

Return to The English Center homepage.

Liever in het Nederlands? The English Center homepage in Dutch.

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