Heather Chetwynd Founder Voice to WordBy Heather Chetwynd, president of Voice to Word Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based company which offers customized training and seminars to support the needs of clients who are not native English speakers.

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For many non-native speakers, changing their accent can be a huge challenge. Understanding why pronunciation improvement and accent modification is difficult helps us meet the challenge.

All of us have an accent, regardless of where or when we learned a language. In Canada, we have a predominant accent which most people are familiar with and find easy to understand.

If your accent is very different from the mainstream accent, people will often find it difficult to understand you, even if you have been speaking English all your life. And if it is difficult to understand your pronunciation, people may tend to lose interest, get frustrated, misunderstand and, unfortunately, misjudge you.

Although I have a Master degree and a professional background, I often experienced prejudice because of my accent, as if I were unsophisticated and not too intelligent. I began my training motivated by the goal of improving both my personal and professional life.  (Bruce Zhiyong Lui, Accent modification student)

Should you consider modifying your accent?

Regardless of how competent you are in English, it is important to determine if the way you speak is easily understood by native English-speaking Canadians. If not, it may be due to your accent, your use and understanding of idioms, and/or cultural differences. (For more on this topic, read Beyond Words – ESL Pronunciation And Canadian English) All of these can negatively affect communication and an immigrant will commonly find that misunderstandings arise from each of these aspects.

There are many terms used to refer to the process of modifying an accent. A common term is “accent reduction” which refers to reducing a characteristic pronunciation determined by a particular linguistic, regional and/or social background. Accent reduction implies the need to adopt a new accent. “Pronunciation training” and “accent modification” are two other terms used to refer to the process of learning a new way to produce a spoken language.

You may decide to participate in such training in order to be more easily understood or less easily identified with a particular group. Whatever the reason, it is important to keep in mind that most people will never be able to eliminate a foreign accent. I would never recommend this goal. A more practical target is the ability to be clearly understood by those you deal with daily in English, and this is a realizable goal with some instruction, time and commitment.

The speed with which you improve and the degree of improvement will depend on several factors:

  • How long you have been speaking English
  • The quality of instruction
  • Your openness to change
  • Your desire to improve
  • Your commitment and focus

Adjusting muscles and movement

You could say that moderating your accent requires mouth gymnastics. But, to be fair, regular gymnastics might be easier since we are at least familiar with consciously using the muscles involved in carrying out the movement. In contrast, the muscles we use in speech are often less identifiable. We can consciously control many of the muscles used when we speak our native language, but when we try to learn a new language, we must learn to move our tongue and lips
differently. Often the muscles required seem not to exist.

Try this experiment. Open your mouth and see where your tongue is. Now lay it flat, resting behind the teeth, making contact with the back of the teeth, perhaps with a slight concave dip in the middle. This is a common resting position for the tongue in Canadian English. Compare this with your tongue. Depending on your linguistic background, you may or may not be able to do this. But this is an example of one thing which affects so many English sounds and can be extremely hard to learn. This works both ways. For example, I can not seem to figure out how to hold my tongue high at the back and curved down at the front as many Asian immigrants naturally hold their tongue. But I would imagine, with instruction and practice, I would be able to learn this over time.

Another thing you can explore is where and how your tongue makes contact with the ridge – that little bump on the roof of your mouth, just behind the teeth. Try making the sound “T”. Where exactly does your tongue touch? Do you use the tip of the tongue or bend it over a little bit and use more of the surface? Is your tongue touching your teeth? Do you release any air when you say “T”? How firmly is the contact made between your tongue and the ridge? All these variables will affect your speech and indicate your linguistic background.

To learn how to pronounce sounds differently involves re-educating the muscles and habitual movements. It takes time, practice, commitment and focus but it is possible.

The training showed me my weaknesses — which vowels and consonants I had problems with and the cause of these problems. I found out that tongue position, lip shape and inadequate breath control all affect the quality of the sound. I realized that my problems were not only related to accent – which I then considered to be only the individual sounds — but also to the laziness of my tongue and mouth during speech. (Warren Lee, Accent modification student)

Learning a new linguistic music

Language is like music – the way the individual notes interplay creates the feeling and meaning of what is being expressed. Many people think, if they can pronounce the individual sounds, they have done all they can do. But, like music, you must learn how to move between the sounds — run words together, use stress and intonation, and reduce or drop vowels and parts of words. Every language has its music and the feelings expressed by this music are unique in each.

The way we link words together can be very confusing. For example, can you understand this? HA VA NA PUL – Say the underlined word louder and higher than the others. This is an example of how English can sound to many newcomers. The main rule for linking is that we move consonants forward to join with vowels. So this sentence is really: HAVE AN APPLE. This process, which happens in many European languages for example, makes English sound smooth. This is why the English spoken by most people of Chinese origin sounds choppy to an English speaking person.

Another aspect of the music of English is the way we push and pull the words along with how we change the vowels of unstressed syllables. This process gives a particular rhythm to the language which is unique. Many languages use stress in their speech – meaning certain words are emphasized by increasing their volume or pitch, for example. But few languages reduce unstressed vowels to the degree English does.

Learning appropriate intonation is yet another aspect of the process of accent modification. This refers to the melody of the language, how the voice rises and falls as we speak. Variations in intonation can completely change the meaning of what is being said. Intonation patterns can indicate a social group or regional origin. For many people, changing their intonation pattern can feel a little threatening because it can make one feel like a different person.

Moderating your public image

This brings us to the fact that learning a new accent involves moderating your public image, your self perception and your personality. These are deeper issues which many people find difficult. We get used to how we communicate and it helps to establish an identity. Having to move our face in strange ways and use our voice differently can feel very uncomfortable. Changing our accent can make us feel alienated from how we are speaking, at least at first.

This is why I say accent training requires us to be open. One of the reasons children have no difficulty learning to speak like a native speaker is because they have little identity to defend at their stage of development. Adults are subject to so many social pressures, including a desire to defend their status in society. As I said, intonation, and in general how we speak, indicates our status, educational and social background, etc. Consequently, changing how we speak can make us feel uncertain and insecure. Being aware that this might happen can help us meet the challenge.

After studying for three months with Heather, I saw noticeable improvements. Even close friends and family noticed the changes. I now speak much more clearly and have developed more confidence in my speech. (Shawn Jung, Accent modification student)

Deciding on an approach

So what is the first step? Find a teacher! Computer software is useful for teaching individual sounds but not very effective for creating the awareness you need for more fluid speech. Private instruction is most effective, but working with a group – particularly a unilingual group, is more affordable and can be quite effective.

Remember, you must be open to change and willing to put what you learn into practice. This requires consistent, focused practice, just like any form of physical training. And it requires using the tools provided by your instructor. Finally, be patient – your pronunciation can and will improve if you give it the time and attention needed.