By 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.
Music and Accent Modification
Learning to adjust your accent (called accent modification or accent reduction) is a lot like learning to play an instrument. We need to fine tune listening skills, exercise muscles that aren’t used much, smooth out transitions between sounds, add dynamics, etc. And, very importantly, it takes focus, repetition and more repetition.
All of us have developed patterns of speech. The tongue tends to relax into one position; it tends to make contact with certain areas of the mouth and not with others; it likes to move in some ways and not others. We habitually hold our jaw in a particular manner; we move our lips in set ways; the range of volume and pitch we use is dictated largely by linguistic patterns appropriate to our native language.
When we attempt to change our accent, all this needs to be re-learned.
TRANSITIONING BETWEEN SOUNDS
In many ways, learning an instrument is similar to learning a new accent.
If you have ever studied guitar or piano, you will know that when you move from one chord to another, at first you almost crawl to the next position, slowing placing the fingers in the correct place. It takes time at first so there is a gap between each chord. The usual approach is to practice just that particular movement until you can move between one position and the next seamlessly.
If you imagine the chord being the tongue position for a certain sound, transitioning between sounds can be practiced in the same manner. For example, moving into TH from different positions can be difficult. To pronounce the word MONTH, we need to move seamlessly from N to TH. We make the N by placing the pad of the tip of the tongue on the ridge behind the teeth. And we make the TH by placing the tongue at the tip of the upper teeth and blowing. So rather than making the N, stopping and then placing the tongue in the new position to make the TH, we need to practice that transition itself. This transition happens within words but also between them.
Once you have isolated the transition causing difficulty, practice that movement alone. In this case, it means moving between N and TH using the least effort possible. Once you feel you can do it slowly with no gap, then find words and phrases that have that transition. So some examples are ANTHEM, ENTHUSIASM, LABYRINTH, etc. Then practice the same transition between words: IN THE, ON THOSE, WIN THAT, etc. Finally, put these words into short phrases and try to maintain the same seamless transition.
- The cards are IN THE drawer.
- Put the label ON THOSE boxes
- I’d like to WIN THAT prize.
Using this methodology can help to retrain your habitual movements so that your language is smooth and, therefore, easier to understand.
RHYTHM & MUSICALITY
When talking of music, in particular rhythm and musicality, we use terms such as dynamics, melody and lyricism. In language, we refer to stress, pitch, volume, phrasing and intonation.
Every language has its own music. Without understanding it, we can often identify a language or language group by the sounds, of course, but especially by the way the voice goes up and down and where the stress falls. This musicality, even more than individual sounds, is what people attune themselves to. With a native-like musicality, the listener tends to feel more comfortable and in “familiar territory.”
This musicality is also what gives meaning to the words you use. We may hear a word expressed in a variety of ways, representing a variety of meanings. For example, the word “yes” can be said in such a way as to imply neutral acceptance, excitement, resistance, resignation or the desire for confirmation.
There are a number of linguistic aspects that influence meaning but here are five key points:
STRESS: English is a stress-based language. Stress patterns occur in individual words – called syllable stress – and in sentences – referred to as sentence stress. Stressed syllables and words tend to differ from unstressed syllables and words in four ways:
- They sound louder.
- They are usually longer.
- They have clearer vowels.
- They have a higher pitch relative to the surrounding words.
PITCH: This refers to the height of a sound. Musical pitch changes as it goes higher and lower, creating the melody. Pitch can show the importance of a particular syllable or word (when used as part of intonation.) It can also be highly influenced by emotional state.
VOLUME: Referring to how loudly we speak, volume is integral to stress and also highly influenced by emotional state. The amount of volume which is acceptable in any particular situation is generally dictated by cultural expectations.
PHRASING: English is broken into thought groups. We tend to take a pause after a thought group but not during. This allows the listener to understand the relationship between the words because we understand that those words all belong to one idea. Taking a pause in the wrong place could change the meaning.
INTONATION: This refers to a combination of stress, pitch and volume, which moves according to phrasing. In North American English we have a common intonation pattern which is wave-like, jumping up on the first stressed word in a phrase and stepping down on the following stressed words within the same phrase. This is a form of neutral intonation.
Here are some other intonation patterns:
A sentence ending with upward intonation generally expresses the desire for confirmation, such as a yes-no question. An intonation pattern we refer to as uptalk uses this pattern repeatedly.
Downward intonation at the end of a sentence signifies either completion of an idea or a request for information.
In general, an increased up-down movement portrays stronger emotion. Softer emotions, or neutral speech, tend to be expressed with softer waves. So the way you say “sit down” can be said as an invitation (using a soft curve) or an order (using a sharp drop in pitch.)
How you use these musical influences in speech is often critical to helping others understand your feelings and intentions. At times, it may also be cause for misunderstanding.
While improving the accuracy of individual consonants and vowels is important, don’t overlook the musicality of a language. Learn to listen to pitch and volume changes, phrasing and intonation. Imitate voices that you like (CBC radio has some great ones.) Use audio recording to model stress and intonation patterns. Improving these aspects of speech may take time but think of it as a rhythm that gets into you. Allow it to take hold!