Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Author: Gwendolyn (page 2 of 5)

Joking Around in a Second Language

Recently, I found myself in Mexico, sitting at a table full of food surrounded by friends. Everyone was enjoying themselves, eating, chatting, and laughing. The mood was convivial. Speaking Spanish as a second language and having known most of the people there for close to a decade, I felt comfortable. Then I told a joke.

Silence.

The disappointing realization that no one had found my joke funny – or even understood it – crept through my mind, and I had to act fast to clear up the confusion that showed on my friends’ faces.

If you’re like me, you understand the value of a good laugh. Laughter has been shown to decrease stress, improve health, and it helps us connect and bond with others. While there are many ways to make people laugh, one of my favorites is with words.

There are good jokes and there are bad jokes, and then there are really bad jokes.

Some people tend to be more gifted at using words to make other people laugh. Even if you are among the jocularly gifted, if you’re speaking a second language and interacting with people from a culture you didn’t grow up in, then chances are good that from time to time you will tell a joke that people will not find funny.

Why do jokes fall flat in our second language?

People from different cultures tend to find different things funny – or not.

The joke offends.

Depending on where you are from and where your listeners are from, a joke that is hilarious in your culture could be either worthy of laughter, or, in the worst of cases, offensive to listeners from another culture. Jokes that offend usually do so, either with their content, the relationship between the jokester and the listener, or both of those things. The differences in what is and is not funny between Eastern and Western cultures have been explored and described. For an academic approach to the topic, click here.

Poor delivery.

If the content of your jest is not the issue, the problem might have to do with how you tell the joke. We’ve all seen someone tell a joke badly. Either they give away the punchline too soon or they stumble through the lead-in, forgetting crucial pieces of information. This part of telling a joke is universal. When telling a joke in a second language, you definitely want to use the right vocabulary and pronounce it well enough for your listener to understand.

Especially when it comes to one-liners, or zingers, when telling jokes cross-culturally sometimes, people use language behaviors that, while they may work in their own culture, do not work in the culture they’re communicating in. British culture, for instance, is notorious for its use of sarcasm.

Inadequate set-up. | They don’t translate.

Many jokes rely on a shared context. If you don’t know the background information, you might be the only one who isn’t laughing at the punchline. This is particularly common in a second language situation.

If your audience doesn’t know the context for your joke, then it won’t be funny. In a second language situation, many references to pop culture may not be shared, so people may be confused when you evoke the Eugenio Derbez line from Familia P. Luche and start calling your friend Bibi, asking her why she isn’t a normal girl.

What to do when your joke has bombed.

In conversation, when we tell a bad joke, we have several options.

Move on.

Especially if the conversation is fast-paced, sometimes just ignoring the bad joke and moving on with the dialogue is the best thing you can do. Lighthearted jokes do not contain information crucial to a conversation (although they can), but rather they serve to lighten the mood.

Explain the joke.

Different cultures find different things funny, so it may be the case that your listeners understood the joke, it just didn’t tickle their funny bone in the way they’re accustomed to. If you have the opportunity to explain what you meant by your joke and what made the joke funny, then doing so may help your listeners to understand your thought process a bit better, and to shed some light on cultural differences in humor.

Acknowledge the joke was a dud.

From time to time, in order to stay humble, it’s important to be able to laugh at ourselves. A simple statement like, “that sounded better in my head” or “man, I was really hoping you would laugh at that” can communicate to your listeners that you just made a joke and they missed it.

Whatever you do, do it quickly.

Unless your listeners ask for a detailed explanation, it is best to keep the recovery from a failed joke brief, so the conversation can progress.

 

In the case of my failed joke, as the pause of confusion continued, I quickly explained my use of sarcasm and the conversation was up and running again as if the pause had never happened.

If you’re interested in working on your communication skills in English as a Second Language, then let’s talk. Making positive changes in your ability to use English effectively really isn’t that hard, it just takes some help.

No Kidding Man

Making Mistakes and Moving On

I will always remember that day on the beach. I was visiting friends in Italy, and we were taking a break from the searing Sardinian sun under the shade of a giant multi-colored umbrella. I was practicing my Italian by reading out loud from a magazine. With the rules of the language in my mind (remember to pronounce “ci” as “chi,” I reminded myself), I thought I was doing pretty well, until suddenly, the group erupted in laughter.

Feeling myself turning red, I stopped and looked up from the magazine, confused. “That word is in English,” they told me, still laughing, “You read it like an Italian word.”

I looked down. The word that had caused my friends to laugh at me was “live” (as in “live music”). Instead of saying the word live, I had said lee-vay. No wonder they were laughing. Once I understood my mistake, I could laugh about it, too.

Maybe you’ve had experiences like this. It doesn’t feel very good to be laughed at because you made a pronunciation error, and it feels even worse when you don’t know what the mistake was. But when we can identify when we have made a mistake, we can learn from our error and move on. When we do that, we improve.

My experience on the beach that day has, without a doubt, made me a better communicator, particularly with reading. I learned firsthand that the letters on the page do not always sound the same, and sometimes, they might not even be from the same language.

In English, more so than in Italian, letters of the alphabet can represent multiple sounds, depending on their context within a word. If you would like to work on your spoken English abilities and improve your English pronunciation, click here to complete a free speech snapshot.

Listening Between the Lines

If you have spent considerable time in a culture you didn’t grow up in, then you have likely found yourself in a situation where there was a misunderstanding, but it wasn’t due to the words that were spoken. What we refer to in English as reading between the lines indicates picking up on information that is not explicitly said, but rather, implied by context. The level to which we rely on our implicit understanding in a conversation is cultural, and this is an area of cultural communication where we often go wrong without even knowing it.

In her book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer describes a scale ranging from low-context, where one participant in a conversation makes no assumptions about what another participant knows, to high-context, where the information that is read between the lines can be much more important than what is explicitly said. The United States is the most low-context culture in the world. Latin American cultures, including Mexico, are considered high-context[1].

In the US, we value transparency and factual statements that are both explicit and specific. When it’s time to get down to business, we do not like to beat around the bush. In Mexico, such is not the case – as I have learned firsthand.

When I first started communicating with individuals from Mexico (friends, family of friends, businesspeople, etc.), I noticed that before [what I saw as] the actual conversation takes place, there is a ritual of politely saying “hello, good morning/afternoon/night,” and asking how the person is doing, sometimes followed by lengthier small talk. Being a low-context estadounidense, I tend to breeze past these pleasantries without realizing. Paulina, a friend of mine from Mexico, has confirmed that skipping this initial stage of the conversation can come off as brusque, unless both participants in the conversation know each other well.

Sometimes we have to alter the way we communicate with others in order to successfully get our message across. When I am consciously trying to have a positive interaction with someone from Mexico, I remind myself to greet them politely (with appropriate reference to the time of day) and to ask them how they are doing.

Usually, I am anxious to get to the real reason for the conversation. As a time-obsessed low-context communicator, the pleasantries feel like a waste of time. However, they are most certainly not. They serve as a small investment toward building a relationship of trust that is important for business, community, and culture.

Our patterns of cultural communication are ingrained from the moment we are born. Therefore, making an adjustment in order to effectively communicate with someone from a different culture can be difficult. Despite the difficulty, sharing your ideas with other people in a way they can easily understand is one of the most valuable things on Earth.

Whether you come from a low-context culture like the United States or a high-context culture like Mexico, make a conscious effort to accommodate your listener’s cultural communication style. Let them hear your ideas.

[1] …although not at the extreme end of the high-context cultures. Japan has the honor of being the most high-context culture in the world.

Getting Your Message Across

Imagine you are a powerful person. You have command over many people and your responsibilities are great. Decisions you make directly affect your organization. Your ideas help the organization to move forward in its mission and goals.

Now, how are your communication skills?

If you are unable to communicate effectively, your messages could be misunderstood or misinterpreted. In the wrong environment, these situations can have serious implications for you, the organization, and others affected by the organization’s actions.

There are many types of intelligence, and not everyone is born with great communication skills. In fact, most good communicators have worked on their skills to improve their abilities to connect with others and share their ideas. With attention and practice, anyone can improve their communication skills.

Communication intelligence entails thinking about and analyzing your own speech and communication, and constantly making small changes to get your message across more effectively. When you have high communication intelligence, you can consider what your body is doing to give you that unintended rough tone of voice, and make the necessary changes to connect with your listener more effectively. With high communication intelligence also comes knowing how to choose the most appropriate word order and phrasing (i.e., when you’re speaking and when you’re breathing; how you put words together in running speech between breaths) to get your message across to the intended audience.

There are so many components of spoken communication that – unless you happen to be a speech coach – it can be hard to consider everything that affects how your listener hears your message. However, if you can examine and learn to use your own communication skills deliberately and accurately, component by component, then you can become more aware of how to deliver your message in the most effective way possible.

Gaining communication intelligence is not something you do over the weekend. It’s a continuous process of learning to connect with others. Aspects of spoken communication you can change include:

  • Rate of speech
  • Pauses
  • Phrasing
  • Volume
  • Stress
  • Word choice
  • Tone of voice
  • Voice quality

 

Try This

Here’s an exercise you can practice to increase your communication intelligence, so you can hear how each of the aspects of spoken communication affect your message:

Record yourself explaining an idea in a sentence or two. Do this many times. Each time, try changing the different variables listed above. Play with your rate of speech by producing some of the words faster or slower than others. Add pauses to different parts of the sentence and listen to how a longer or shorter pause adds meaning to the message. Alter the volume of your voice and try to produce the sentences with different tones of voice. Try using different words to explain the same idea. Listen to each version that you record, and observe how changing just one aspect of communication affects your message.

 

As you gain confidence with the different aspects of communication, you’ll have greater control over how you communicate your message to different listeners. Pay attention to other speakers and take note of how they combine the aspects of communication to get their message across. Actors are experts at this. As you’re watching your favorite show or movie, observe how actors use the aspects of communication to add emotion and subtext to their lines.

Then, get out and use the aspects of communication to do the same. Go on, let them hear your ideas!

One Small Change Can Improve Your Pronunciation of English

All languages have rules. If you speak English as a second language, then you probably learned the rules of English grammar by studying and practicing until they came automatically. Just as there are rules of grammar, there are rules of pronunciation. These pronunciation rules affect the way native speakers produce the sounds of English. This post is about one of those rules in particular, which can improve your pronunciation of spoken English so listeners can hear your ideas, not your accent.

This rule has to do with the voice. As you may know, some sounds are produced with voice, and some sounds are produced without voice. (These are often referred to as voiceless sounds.) If you are not sure if a sound has voice or not, try saying the sound while feeling with your hand on the front of your throat. If you feel a vibration, that is your voice. If you do not feel a vibration, the sound is voiceless.

Voiced sounds include vowels and roughly half the consonants. Most consonants have a voiced and a voiceless version. For example, /z/ is voiced, but /s/ is not. Besides the voiced/voiceless difference, these sounds are exactly the same.

But back to that rule. Here it is:

A sound that follows a voiced sound will also be voiced.

Sounds simple, right? This rule is of particular importance in English, because of a couple of commonly-used grammatical forms. When we add an S to the end of a word, either because we’re conjugating a verb in the third person singular (he/she/it…) or because we’re making a noun plural, that S is often pronounced as its voiced counterpart /z/, if the sound before it is a voiced sound. If -es has been added to a word to make it plural, it is always pronounced as uh + z. The voiced schwa (written here as ‘uh’) turns the S into a /z/ sound. When we add -ed to apply the past tense to a word, that /d/ actually turns into the unvoiced /t/ if the sound before it is a voiceless sound.

Grammatical Form If the sound before it is voiced If the sound before it is voiceless
Plural -s S is pronounced as Z S is pronounced as S
3rd person singular verb -s S is pronounced as Z S is pronounced as S
Past tense -ed -ed is pronounced as -d* -ed is pronounced as -t*

*After /t/ or /d/, the past tense ending -ed is pronounced as -id, as in the words added, collected, demanded, expected, painted, and sounded.

 

Test Yourself

In the following sentences, a word with one of these endings is in bold, with the ending underlined. How should the ending be pronounced? Scroll down to see the answers.

  1. He backed up the truck.
  2. Some people are afraid of snakes.
  3. The chef fries the potatoes.
  4. The dictator banged his fist on the podium.
  5. Do you have the rings?
  6. The mosquito bites itched.
  7. She walked up the stairs.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Answers

  1. backed = t  2. snakes = s  3. fries = z  4. banged = d  5. rings = z  6. bites = s, itched = t  7. walked = t, stairs = z

The Mechanics of Speech

Remember learning about Rube Goldberg machines? These machines employ a series of mechanical processes that eventually result in an action. Speech production is similar to a Rube Goldberg machine. After the brain figures out what we want to say (which is accomplished through electrical and chemical means), the rest of speech production is surprisingly mechanical.

Voice Production

The Bellows

Maybe you’ve used a bellows to blow some life into a fire. You might have noticed the sound of the air rushing out of the bellows and how it changed depending on how quickly you moved the handles together. Or maybe you have created a squealing sound by stretching the opening of an inflated balloon and allowing the air to escape through the tight but unblocked opening. With a little bit of force and in close quarters, moving air can produce sound.

 

Image: Lisa Ann Yount

Image: Lisa Ann Yount

In speech production, the moving air comes from the lungs. We use muscles, including the diaphragm, to get the air moving. It travels up out of the lungs and into the throat, where it meets the larynx.

 

The Whoopee Cushion

Whoopee cushions are immensely entertaining. That is not just because of the ease with which you can trick someone into thinking they have farted, but rather, because the whoopee cushion creates its comical sound via air flowing through a flappy opening. The vocal chords (a.k.a. vocal folds), are like the flappy opening of a whoopee cushion. Just as you can shift the opening of a balloon or whoopee cushion to alter the pitch of the sound that is created by the escaping air, we adjust our larynx to change the pitch and quality of our voice. These adjustments are made using muscles that move cartilaginous structures attached to our vocal folds.

Image: Jason Meredith

Image: Jason Meredith

Voice is produced as it travels through the opening in the vocal folds on its journey from the lungs. The vocal folds are made of muscle with a flexible, stretchy, flappy cover, like the rubber of a whoopee cushion. The sound that comes out of the opening in your vocal folds is your voice.

The Bottleneck

Have you ever blown air across the top of a bottle to make a sound? You can change the sound a little by shifting your lips, but the nature of the sound that you can make with a bottle depends the most on the volume of air inside the bottle. The more liquid there is (in other words, less air), the higher-pitched the sound will be. An empty bottle makes a low-pitched sound.

Image: Dean Hochman

Image: Dean Hochman

Air resonates in a bottle like the voice resonates in the air-filled chambers of the head and neck (a.k.a. the vocal tract). The sound waves of a speaker’s voice explode out of the vocal folds and bounce around at the back of the throat, in the mouth, and up into the nose. The speaker can greatly affect the quality of the sound of their voice using the muscles of the throat and mouth to position their larynx and the surfaces of the vocal tract.

Articulation

Over the years, people have created duck calls, a type of whistle designed to – like a duck’s own vocal tract – cut through the noise of water to attract ducks. There are a number of duck calls out there, with each design offering a different ducky sound. Key features of duck call designs are the use of vibrating reeds to create the sound when someone blows into the whistle, and the blockages through which the sound waves travel before leaving the whistle. The structure of these duck calls can vary greatly, with different whistles producing very different sounds.

Image: www.patentswallart.com

Image: www.patentswallart.com

Spoken language is a series of sounds that we create using the air we move from our lungs out our mouth (and nose). What makes it so complex is our ability to produce – and understand – a lengthy series of these sounds at high speed. We produce the sounds of speech with our lips, tongue, and the flap of tissue that separates the air in the mouth from the air in the nose.

Different sounds are produced by changing the airflow in the vocal tract in different ways. Speakers can do this by forcing the air through a smaller space (like when a pirate bunches up their tongue to say, “arrrr”), and by blocking the air (like when a diner forces the air out through the nose to say, “mmm” or a thirsty baby moves their lips together and apart to say, “baba”).

Putting it Together: Whoopee Cushion to Duck Call

Around the globe, there are over 100 different speech sounds, and all are created out of thin air[1]. When we speak, we move air from our lungs through our vocal folds, and we manipulate it for each sound. Speakers combine speech sounds in infinite ways to communicate. A listener’s ability to process a series of speech sounds quickly depends on their knowledge of the language spoken and their experience using that language, as well as the speaker’s precision of production. Just as one small change in the design of a duck call can change the sound it produces, a small change in the position of the larynx or tongue can significantly change the sound a speaker produces.

When you know the words you want to say but you feel that your speech production could be more precise, that’s where speech trainers come in. At Lingua East we can help you turn the air in your lungs into speech that people understand. Drop us a line and we’ll help you out. Go on, let them hear your ideas!

[1] While most (such as the sounds in Standard American English) are created using air from the lungs, some speech sounds, such as the various clicks in African languages, are created by drawing air in.

Why Gestures Matter in Communication

We communicate with a lot more than our mouths. Think of communication as an art. An artist has a number of tools they use to produce their art. A painter uses many different brushes, spatulas, and pigments to create a painting. A poet uses words and phrases with punctuation and page space to create a poem. A good communicator uses their mouth and upper airway as well as facial expression and gesture to share their ideas. Gestures enhance spoken communication.

Gestures are movements, usually of the hands, that enhance the meaning of spoken communication. You probably do not have to think very long to come up with an example of gestural communication, whether you happen to know American Sign Language or you’re trying to merge onto I-77 at midday.
Many gestures are fairly universal, such as the hand out, palm up gesture. Other gestures are culture-specific, such as the OK sign – whose meaning varies from the United States, where it means, “all okay,” to Argentina and Greece it is more offensive.

We can use our hands as an addition to spoken communication, to help our listeners understand us. In order for gestures to be understood, they should be produced within clear view of the listener, usually in front of the upper torso or face. Unless you are using a specific gesture that your listener is familiar with, keep it simple. The simpler the gesture, the more likely your listener will understand what you mean to say.

What are you saying with your hands?

The position of your hands has an impact on your message.

Hands open with the palms up is a more positive gesture, and is inviting – especially with outstretched arms.

When hands are in fists or face down, it tends to be received by the listener more negatively, and may serve to give you more time to speak during your turn in a conversation.

Hands up with the palms forward is a limit-setting gesture. It communicates to your listener to stop what they are doing.

Take a moment to think about how you use your hands when you speak. What is the message you’re communicating to others, beyond what comes out of your mouth?

Train Your Ears for Clear Pronunciation

An important part of many accent modification programs is auditory training. This entails listening to sounds in our second language that are so similar that we might not even hear a difference when we start the training. But, with repeated listening and practice, you can learn to hear the differences between sounds that the native speakers hear. Being able to hear the difference can help you to produce the difference in your speech.

The Mouth-Ear Connection

Although no one can know for sure exactly how speech production happens, people have come up with different theories that connect what we hear to how we speak. As babies, we played with pushing air through our mouths, and eventually we figured out how to produce the sounds that we heard around us. These are the sounds of our native language.

When we’re older and we want to learn to speak another language, we try our best to produce the sounds we hear, but there are two things working against us: one is related to the movement patterns our brains have programmed our mouths to follow to speak, and the second is the acoustic input our ears have been trained to pick up on.

During childhood, our mouths learn the motor patterns that are required to produce the speech sounds of our first language with a native accent. These are the motor patterns that, when applied to a second language, contribute to an accent. It is possible to work on the motor patterns for speech sound production to improve pronunciation and increase clarity. As I have discussed in previous posts, this is no simple task; it takes a lot of focused practice.

As we begin life, we are able to distinguish between all the speech sounds of different languages. Babies hear speech sounds with more sensitivity than adults! They can hear the differences between similar sounds in languages spoken not just at home, but around the world. As we get older, the different sounds of speech that we can distinguish are reduced to something closer to the sounds of our own language.

Why You Need to Train Your Ears

As a result of the development of language-specific listening and speaking skills, adults speaking English as a second language can experience difficulties with producing and hearing certain sounds. This difficulty stems from two things. One is not having the appropriate motor pattern to produce the sound; the other is not hearing the contrast between the sound they mean to produce and a similar sound, with which they may be more familiar.

When you think about the different features of a speech sound, it is not surprising that there are some sounds that we hear differently that are very similar. Take, for example the sounds /b/ and /p/. They are both produced by stopping the airflow in the mouth – in this instance, by putting the lips together – then releasing the built-up air. These two sounds are produced in the same part of the mouth. The only difference is that the /b/ has voice, the /p/ does not. In some languages, this difference between /b/ and /p/ isn’t as important as it is in English, so native speakers of Arabic, which has /b/ but not /p/ might not distinguish between these two sounds.

However, sounds that are difficult for an adult speaking English as a second language can be learned; proficiency can be gained. As mentioned here, here, and here, with consistent practice and assistance from a speech trainer or native speaker, it is possible to improve your pronunciation of standard American English. Part of improving your pronunciation involves training your ears.

Training your ears requires some careful listening.

How to Train Your Ears for Clear Pronunciation

  1. Select the sounds you need to work on.

There are many sound pairs that you could work on, but you will probably only need to work on a few that really affect other people’s ability to understand you. These should be sounds that you do not consistently produce when you’re speaking English as a second language. It may be helpful to find the sound pairs that other native speakers of your first language have difficulty with in English. Once you know which sound pairs to train, get a list of word pairs. If you search for “minimal pairs” then you can find several helpful websites with lists of different sound pairs.

  1. Get a recording.

It will be easier to work with just one or two word pair lists at a time. Each word in the pair should be a real word in English, and it should differ from the other word in the pair by only one sound (the sound distinction you’re training). Have a native English speaker check the list to make sure that each pair has the correct sounds, and then have that same native English speaker create a recording of themselves saying each word pair at a reasonable pace. They can do this on the voice recording app on their phone, and send it to you as a text message or email.

  1. Listen to the recording.

Listen to the recording while you’re doing an automatic activity, such as driving. Listen to the recording for several minutes at a time, several minutes a day. Each time you listen, listen really hard for the difference between each word pair.

  1. Check in with a speech trainer or a native speaker.

If you have access to a speech trainer, ask them to help you to learn the muscle patterns for clear pronunciation of the sound distinction you’re training. If you don’t have access to a speech trainer, click here to send one a message.

Show your word list to a native speaker and tell them you want them to quiz you. Ask them to say each word pair, but every couple of pairs or so, instead of reading both words of the pair, have them say one of the words twice. For every pair, tell your speaker if the words were different or if they were the same. Were you able to identify when they were different and when they were the same? Once you are able to identify whether the words are the same or different with 100% accuracy, move on to another list.

Train your ears while you drive to and from work.

Train your ears while you drive to and from work.

Lingua East provides accent modification, professional communication, and cultural communication services to individuals and companies in the United States and abroad. If you or someone you know is interested in communicating with greater clarity, confidence, and success, do not hesitate to contact us at contact@LinguaEast.com.

Seeing is Hearing: The McGurk Effect

For decades, speech pathologists and linguists have been entertaining people at parties with an interesting phenomenon known as the McGurk effect. The McGurk effect occurs when people are exposed to audio of one sound, with a visual of another sound being produced. People hear something different from the actual sound. I first learned of the effect via the following video, in which Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington elicits the effect with the sounds /ba-ba/ and /da-da/ or /tha-tha/:

Searching for that video, I found a fantastic example using the “Bill! Bill! Bill!” chant from the 90s kids science show, Bill Nye the Science Guy. Take a moment (24 seconds, to be exact) to watch and listen:

The audio is paired with images that affect how the word “Bill” is heard: first, images depicting different bills as shown. Then, as images of pails are shown the sound heard changes to “pail”. Next, images of mayonnaise are shown, and the sound shifts again to “mayo”. Did you hear the three different words?

A McGurk effect shows up in babies exposed to English by the time they are five months-old[1]. This effect seems to strengthen with age. However, the likelihood of a listener falling for the McGurk effect depends on different factors. These factors demonstrate the fascinating interplay between hearing and vision in our ability to understand spoken language.

In a noisy environment, people are more likely to mishear what was said. That makes sense; if there are a lot of noises around, it is harder to pick out one sound from the rest of the noise and correctly identify it. If English is your native language, you’re likely to fall for the McGurk effect. Researchers have found that native Japanese speakers are better able to correctly identify the sound presented, even when shown video of someone producing a different sound[2], with similar results for Chinese as a native language.

This may be related to differences in cultural communication, specifically, eye contact. In English-speaking cultures, for the most part, eye contact is pretty constant, with some degree of occasional gaze shift away from the speaker by the listener. In Asian cultures, eye contact with a speaker is less common, with a much greater degree of the listener directing his gaze to something other than the speaker. How we hear language is impacted by the engagement of the visual system while listening.

Further evidence that how we listen to language affects our tendency to fall for the McGurk effect was found in a 2008 study published in Brain Research[3]. In this study, deaf people who used cochlear implants to hear were compared with normally hearing people in their susceptibility to the McGurk effect. The normally hearing people did not fall quite as hard for the McGurk effect as the individuals using cochlear implants to hear, suggesting that the cochlear implant group relied more on what they saw the speaker doing with their mouth than the audio. This is further evidence that our understanding of spoken language is dependent on the sensory information we take in. This, in turn, seems to be related to our varied cultural communication styles.

We all come from different backgrounds of language, hearing, and abilities. It can be fun to share videos of the McGurk effect with people from diverse backgrounds, to see what they hear. Share what you heard in a comment below!

If you are interested in learning more about the McGurk effect, or if you would like to work on your speech hearing abilities, let us know. Until next time, let them hear your ideas, not your accent.

[1] Rosenblum, L., Schmuckler, M., & Johnson, J. (1995). The McGurk effect in infants. Perception & Psychophysics, 59, 347-357. link

[2] Sekiyama, K. & Tohkura, Y. (1991). McGurk effect in non-English listeners: Few visual effects for Japanese subjects hearing Japanese syllables of high auditory intelligibility. Journal of the Acoustical Sociaty of America, 90, 1797-1805. link

[3] Rouger, J., Fraysse, B., Deguine, O., & Barone, P. (2008). McGurk effects in cochlear-implanted deaf subjects. Brain Research, 1188, 87-99. link

The 4 Challenges of Changing An Accent

Have you ever been amazed at how some people can learn another language and speak it so well? Not only do they grasp the intricacies of vocabulary and common phrases, but their accent is almost imperceptible. Me too.

If you have done the hard (but rewarding) work of learning another language, then you understand what a challenge it can be to change your accent. At Lingua East, we believe that nothing is impossible. What might seem daunting at first suddenly becomes a lot less scary when we separate out and examine the factors that make changing an accent seem so challenging.

Challenge Number 1: “I put so much effort into learning the language, if I haven’t gotten the pronunciation down by now, it will never happen.”

Unless you are a language savant like the man Neil Smith and Ianthi Maria Tsimpli wrote about in 1991[1], learning a language is not easy. In fact, when you were working on the basics, there were probably times you felt that you would never master the grammar, let alone all the vocabulary. But you did. Just because you haven’t done something doesn’t mean that it will never happen. You just have to work at it.

Challenge Number 2: “I learned the language after childhood. There’s no way I can train my mouth to make those sounds.”

One of the hot topics in neuroscience is learning. Many neuroscientists focus their studies on how the brain handles learning a second language. When you learn a second language, it changes the anatomy of your brain, making it stronger and more resistant to age-related decline[2]. What they are finding is remarkable: while yes, it is a lot easier to learn speech motor patterns before you can drive a car, adults are able to learn new speech motor patterns.

Challenge Number 3: “I don’t know how to change my accent.”

The third challenge to changing your accent is easily solved. If you have the resources, I strongly encourage you to find a speech trainer to help you work on your accent. The rewards significantly outnumber the costs, and your future self will thank you.

However, if your resources are limited but you still want to change your accent, I recommend you learn as much as you can about your accent. That is, how does your native language affect your production of your second language? Learn IPA, visit the Speech Accent Archive, learn to use spectrogram software, and get as much feedback as you can from native speakers. Set goals and work diligently toward the accent you want. This route to changing your accent may take more time than working with a speech coach, but if you show up and put in the time, you can do it.

Challenge Number 4: “I don’t have time.”

You do have time. There is always time to do the things you want to do, sometimes you just have to get creative. The beauty of the focused practice necessary for changing an accent is that it only requires about an hour a day. What’s more, you can knock out this hour of practice in four fifteen-minute increments, spaced throughout the day. If you work on your accent during all those little free moments you have between tasks, you can easily squeeze an hour of speech practice into your day. You do have time, and there is no time like the present to start.

The common thread here is persistence. If you want to change your accent, then do it. It probably will not be easy, and there are no immediate results when it comes to accent modification. However, whether you have spoken your second language for decades or you just reached an advanced level, you are capable of changing your accent. Your brain is capable of learning the motor speech patterns of the accent you want (or at least coming really close). No matter where you are in the world, if you have an internet connection, you have the resources to change your accent. And there is always time.

The biggest challenge of changing your accent is you. Now that you know that, you can overcome the challenges and change your accent. Get started today. Let them hear your ideas, not your accent.

[1] Smith, N. & Tsimpli, I.M., (1991). Linguistic modularity? A case study of a ‘Savant’ linguist. Lingua, 84, 315-351.

[2] Li, P., Legault, J., & Litcofsky, K. (2014). Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: Anatomical changes in the human brain. Cortex, 58, 301-324.

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