Lingua East

People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Category: accent

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.

Chipping Away at an Accent with an SLP

If you read my site, you might find the term ‘SLP’ used quite a bit. An SLP is a speech-language pathologist, a person who has completed a master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders, speech pathology, or another similarly-named program. Here I explain why when you need quality accent modification services (or other communication enhancement services, for that matter), it’s a good idea to look for a speech trainer who is an SLP, a speech-language pathologist.

A certified SLP is a person who has received the Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech, Language, and Hearing Association (ASHA). You might see the letters CCC-SLP after their name. I am a certified SLP, which means that I have a master’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders and that my first year or so of work was under the supervision of an experienced and knowledgeable SLP.

Anyone can market themselves as a speech coach, and there are quite a few speech coaches peddling accent modification services who are not certified SLPs. Some of them are very good at it, but not all of them have engaged in the rigorous study of the sounds of speech, language learning, motor speech patterns, and what it takes to change the sounds of speech. These are all topics of speech pathology, and they are all topics that your speech coach should be intimately familiar with.

If you’re looking for a certified SLP to provide you with accent modification or other communication skills training services, you have several options to search. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is Google. You can google the services you are looking for and your geographic area. Then, you can weed through the results to see which speech trainers are SLPs and which came to the profession from another field.

If you are unsure if your Google results are certified SLPs or not, you can verify their certification at the ASHA website. You will need their first and last names, their state, and the country to perform this check. Click here to verify a speech trainer’s certification.

A more targeted way to search is to search the CORSPAN database[1]. CORSPAN stands for the Corporate Speech Pathology Network, and it is an international organization of certified speech-language pathologists who provide accent modification, public speaking, presentation skills, voice training, and other communication skills training. At corspan.org you can search for a speech trainer in your geographic region.

Something worth noting about CORSPAN is that it is a membership-based group. There are many more speech trainer SLPs in the world than are in the group, but the group provides an easy way to find a qualified speech trainer in your area. Because one of the requirements for membership in CORSPAN is being a certified SLP, it is more reliable than Google.

Changing an accent is not just an art, it is a science. Groups of speech sounds are interrelated in many ways, and some are a lot easier to change than others. With an individualized plan carefully laying out the speech sounds to address and the order in which to address them, an English speaker with an accent has the best chance at making lasting changes and getting the most bang for his/her buck.

[1] In the nature of full disclosure: I serve on the board of CORSPAN, so I am biased here. However, it is the only group of its kind, and the members are passionate about what they do.

7 Communication Tips for ESL Speakers that Work

If you speak English as a second language, then you have run into situations where someone did not understand you. What did you do when that happened? Were you able to adjust your communication style to get your point across successfully, or did you say, “Forget it,” and move on with that disappointing feeling that you had an idea you wanted to share but you couldn’t? I know what it is like to communicate my ideas in a second language, both successfully and unsuccessfully. I know you have great ideas, and I want you to be able to communicate them successfully.

To help you communicate better as an ESL speaker, I have come up with the following tips. Try them out, you may find that some work better for you than others. Leave a comment below about which tips like the most (or least).conversation

  1. Slow down your rate of speech.

Many people speaking English as a second language find that they are better understood when they slow down their rate of speech. You don’t have to speak one…word…at…a…time, in fact, that may make your listener look at you like you have six heads. But, if you can produce the same words over a longer period of time, your listener will understand you better.

I certainly found this to be the case as a small child communicating with an aunt from Peru. When she spoke to me at her normal rate of speech, it was extremely difficult for me to pick out key words in her message. But when I asked her to repeat and she slowed her rate of speech, I understood her perfectly.

  1. Use “clear speech”

“Clear speech” is a technique that involves speaking with exaggerated movements of the tongue, lips, and jaw. You may have to think about what happens in your mouth when you produce certain speech sounds to be able to successfully use clear speech, but with practice, you’ll be able to turn it on and off when you need it. It feels strange to speak using the clear speech technique, but it can help you get your message across.

  1. Lose the fillers

A lot of us use “fillers,” words or sounds like “um” or “ah” when we’re speaking without even thinking about it. Fillers do not add any meaning to what we say, and can be distracting to listeners. When you speak with an accent, you may be using filler sounds from your native language that are especially distracting to listeners. This can make it extra difficult for your listeners to understand your message.

I was recently at a convention with thousands of other speech-language pathologists. I attended a talk by a very intelligent, extremely talented clinician. The talk was packed full of valuable information, but the clinician used the filler “right?” at the end of every other sentence, and sometimes even multiple times within the same sentence. This made it more difficult to keep track of the flow of the presentation, and I suspect the speaker had no idea she was doing it.

  1. Communicate in a quiet area

There is a lot of research about the interaction between accented speech and background noise. In short, if there is a lot of noise in the surrounding area, your listeners will have a harder time understanding you. Turn off the television, move away from the crowd, and stay away from the speakers blasting music. If it is easier to hear you, it will be easier to understand you.quiet-communication

  1. Use transition words

You can use transition words strategically to introduce topic shifts to your listeners. When you use words and phrases like “on the other hand,” “that is different from…,” and “that reminds me of…” These phrases serve to flip a switch in your listener’s brain that prepares them to understand a different set of vocabulary from what they might otherwise expect.

  1. Pause more

Public speakers use pauses to give their message more power. You can use them to the same effect. Use pauses between phrases and to separate your ideas. You can even use this pause time to plan what you are going to say next, or to prepare yourself for a transition or clear speech.

  1. Say it another way

If your listener asks you to repeat what you just said, it can sometimes be helpful to rephrase your message. Your listener may have had difficulty understanding just a couple of the key words in your sentence; if you can use different words to communicate the same meaning, you increase the chances that your listener will understand you. (This is also a great way to show off that impressive vocabulary you’ve worked so hard on!)

bubblesNow that you have read about these tips, get out and practice them. Figure out which ones work for you and which ones you already use. Keep these tips at the ready to communicate with greater success. Let them hear your ideas.

Changing Your Accent is Hard (But Not Impossible)

When you’re a kid, you can learn languages – your native language and successive languages – pretty easily. Your developing brain is able to soak in all the sounds, words, and structures of a given language.

By the time we are four years old, our brains and mouths have linked up to form the speech patterns that will accompany us for the rest of our lives.

By the time we are four years old, our brains and mouths have linked up to form the speech patterns that will accompany us for the rest of our lives.

By the time we are four years old, our brains and mouths have linked up to form the speech patterns that will accompany us for the rest of our lives.

By adolescence, our speech patterns have become so ingrained that if we learn a second language, we are increasingly likely to speak that second language with an accent. Furthermore, it is around this time that learning another language becomes much more difficult, requiring hours of study. Even if you are able to master the grammar and vocabulary of Farsi at the age of 16, you’ll probably still speak the language with an accent.

Accent encompasses the sounds, rhythms, and intonation of a spoken language by a group of people. It could be confined to language, such as Estonian, or region, such as the Texas Panhandle. While everyone speaks with an accent of some sort, we usually don’t think about having an accent in our native language.

The sorts of researchers who study how babies respond to different sorts of language have found that at a certain age, babies prefer the accent of their own group. In other words, a Jamaican baby would show a preference of Jamaican English over a Minnesota accent, and a baby from St. Louis would prefer a drawl over an Australian accent. We know that babies can tell a difference. What about adults?

The adult brain works through the accent like a sculptor, chipping away at the surface to get at the meaning underneath.

The adult brain works through the accent like a sculptor, chipping away at the surface to get at the meaning underneath.

When a typical adult hears someone speaking with an accent, their brain has some extra work to do before he can understand the message the speaker is trying to convey. The adult brain works through the accent like a sculptor, chipping away at the surface to get at the meaning underneath. The processing of the accent happens mostly on a subconscious level, unless the accent is particularly strong.

Accents can come with a lot of baggage in the form of how listeners perceive someone who speaks with an accent that is different from theirs. People who speak with a certain accent may be seen as more intelligent, sophisticated, or educated. People who speak with a different accent may be seen as more likely to be dishonest. And none of this has anything to do with the person himself, just his accent!

While I have discussed before how as a listener, the only way to overcome any subconscious biases you may have is to increase your exposure to those accents or dialects that might be seen in a negative light, many wonder, what can a speaker do about her own accent?

Petra is an individual who learned a second language when she was a little older. She has an accent. This accent is there because of the speech patterns that Petra developed as a little kid in Hungary. Petra, who works in the corporate offices of a chemical company in the US, wants to change her accent.

She has an accent because of the speech patterns that she developed as a little kid.

She has an accent because of the speech patterns that she developed as a little kid.

She had always had some apprehension about communicating with her team and outside vendors, but as she rose up in the ranks, her accent started becoming more and more of a problem. Petra knows that she is knowledgeable, experienced, and hardworking, but she feels that at times, her interactions with colleagues and vendors are not as clear as they could be, because of her accent.

She’s tried apps on her phone, working diligently to tap and talk to her phone on a daily basis. Didn’t work. She’s tried mimicking the voices on the television. That didn’t work, either. Petra finally realized what was missing: professional feedback from a native English-speaker.

So Petra went to Human Resources and asked about speech coaching. The training director at her company set up an appointment for Petra to meet with a speech coach. Petra chose to do the training over the computer, because it was more convenient for her.

Working with the speech coach, Petra got more than just the feedback that she needed to improve her speech. She was given special exercises to practice that were tailored to her needs, based on science, and recommended by a professional. Petra found the sessions enjoyable, and learned something new every week.

After working with the speech coach for three months, Petra still has an accent. However, she is able to speak English much more clearly than before, and some of her colleagues have even commented on how her speech has improved. She feels more confident in her position, and her feelings of apprehension about communicating with colleagues and vendors have reduced significantly.

If you or one of your team members would like more information about accent modification services, contact us. We’ll be happy to tell you more about our program. If you’re ready to change your accent using a speech coaching program that works, take our online screening to get started. People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

How to Change Your Consonants

When it comes to accent modification, there are two big general areas of speech that may be changed. In the speech pathology biz, those are called segmentals and suprasegmentals. In short, that just means sounds and intonation, respectively. The sounds can be further divided into consonants and vowels. This post is about consonants.

twofaces

Consonants are fun.

Consonants are fun. They [usually] involve some part of the mouth making contact with another part of the mouth and can be explained a lot more easily than the squishy vowels and the vocal tract that is sensitive to changes in volume (which can drastically change vowels). If you want to learn more about vowel squishiness, check out my previous post, A Tour of the Vowel Quadrilateral.

When people speak a second language, they already have the ability to produce all the consonants in their first language without even thinking about it. Those consonants and the way that they may be combined with other speech sounds will depend on the language and dialect. Some languages don’t have many consonants. Hawaiian, for example, only has eight consonants. Other languages have scores of consonants, like Ubykh, a now extinct language that was spoken in Turkey that has an inventory of 84 consonants!

There seem to be three ways people learn the sounds of a second language:

  1. The sound in the second language is a sound from the first language. This is the easiest because you don’t have to learn a new sound.
  2. The sound in the second language is similar to a sound from the first language, so the language learner produces the similar sound that they already know. This results in a distortion that native speakers of the L2 can hear, but the second language learner may not hear. For a while I produced my ds in Spanish more like an r. I had no clue until someone teased me about it.
  3. The sound in the second language is completely new. The language learner may learn the new sound perfectly or imperfectly. The key to learning a completely new sound is hearing the difference between the sounds in the native language and the new sound.

In short, when you learn a new language, some of the second language’s consonants will not be a problem, some will be similar enough to consonants from your L1 for you to get along, and there will likely be a third class of consonants that will be tricky to get the hang of. If you really want to get good at producing these new sounds, the best thing you can do is to diligently work on your listening skills. If you can hear the difference between the sound you’re trying to learn and the similar sounds in your first language, you’re much more likely to learn the new sound.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, work on listening skills.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, work on listening skills.

If you’re geeky like me and want to learn more, this is part of Jim Flege’s Speech Learning Model (the original article is here; I also recommend you visit his site – he’s a really neat guy!).

So after years of study and work to learn a second language, despite all your efforts, you still have an accent. How can you change your pronunciation of consonants? One of the best ways to do this is with an accent coach. And I’m not just saying that because that’s what I’m selling.

Accent modification services with a professional (someone with CCC-SLP after their name) is best because you need someone with a native ear to listen to your productions and give you feedback about your speech. An accent coach can also explain to you what you need to do differently to improve your pronunciation. Contact us today to improve your pronunciation of English. Let them hear your ideas.

A Simplified Way to Understand Vowels

tourWe have mentioned the vowel quadrilateral before, in our post about learning new vowel sounds. The vowel quadrilateral is a four-sided shape marked with symbols representing different vowel sounds. It serves as a useful visual tool for describing what you need to do with your mouth to produce a target vowel sound.

The challenge of learning new vowels is describing them. How do you describe the sound in the middle of the word cat? If you’re well-versed in the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, you can just write the sound as ӕ. However, how do you describe the sound of that vowel? Using the vowel quadrilateral, this is possible.

One Version of the Vowel Quadrilateral

One Version of the Vowel Quadrilateral

The vowel quadrilateral describes sounds by placing them on a point somewhere between two opposites. The two main oppositions are high-low and front-back. On the vowel quadrilateral, high is at the top and low is at the bottom. (What a surprise.) Front is toward the left, and back is toward the right.

The high-low opposition describes the height of the tongue during production of the vowel, and the front-back opposition describes the degree to which the tongue is at the front of the mouth or at the back of the mouth. As you might imagine, these oppositions are not binary. In other words, there are many positions between the highest and lowest and most front and most back positions.

Since there are many positions between high and low and front and back, people use other descriptors to describe vowels. Mid is used along the high-low axis and central is used on the front-back axis. The very middle of the vowel quadrilateral – in mid-central position – is where you can find schwa, written ә in IPA, the most neutral of the vowels. A schwa is what you get when you open your mouth a bit and let your voice out. (Like in unstressed the.)

tongues

By protruding the tongue and blowing forcefully, the result is called a ‘raspberry’. It is not a speech sound, but boy, is it fun to do!

Another descriptor used when talking about vowels is roundedness, which is typically all or nothing. Roundedness refers to whether or not the speaker is rounding his lips. So a vowel sound like the one in the middle of the word booth is rounded, but the vowel sound in the middle of ball is not. Any spot on the vowel quadrilateral can have two vowels that correspond with that spot: one is rounded, one is not rounded. (In a French course I took many years ago, to learn some of the trickier vowels in the Language of Love, I was instructed to produce a rounded vowel I could already produce, but without rounding my lips. It worked!)

Arguably, when speaking English as a second language, the vowels are the most critical sounds of speech for the listener to understand the speaker. The difficult part about mastering the vowels of any language is figuring out what your mouth needs to do to come up with a perfect production. Luckily, we have the vowel quadrilateral and professionals specializing in accent modification to help you learn.

Contact us to improve your vowels today! After all, people should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Accent Modification Services at Lingua East

At Lingua East we provide a range of communication training services. The service that is most near and dear to us is accent modification. Our accent modification services help individuals speaking English as a second language to improve their pronunciation and clarity, so they can have greater success in their professional and recreational lives. We have firsthand experience of that uncomfortable feeling you get someone identifies you more by your accent than your ideas. We believe that if you bothered to learn another language, then you obviously have some great ideas Let us help you communicate better.

workbooksOur accent modification service starts with a thorough assessment. We will ask you to pronounce different words, sentences, and to read longer passages, so we can learn more about you and your language history, your speech production, and other characteristics of your communication. For our clients, part of the assessment just feels like a conversation. But for us, it is a time to analyze your typical speech. Most people communicate in more than one word at a time. We tend to pronounce words differently when they are in sentences, or connected speech.

After we’ve explained to you the results of your assessment, we’ll work together to come up with some realistic goals for your speech. This is a collaborative process, and we want the goals to benefit you most at work or wherever your English matters most. We’ll discuss how the different aspects of your speech affect how others hear and understand you, and come to an agreement on the best targets for accent modification training.

Goals are selected on an individual basis. Your goals may be different from your friend’s goals, even if you share the same native language. At Lingua East, we pride ourselves on providing customized training to optimize success. Your training objectives are expertly designed, just for you.

The training process is easy and fun. Training session activities, like goals, are specially designed to help you master the accent and communication skills that can take you to the next level. Activities may include word drills to perfect your pronunciation of frequently used work vocabulary, simulations of professional conversations (for example, explaining the setup of a new database to a coworker), work with kazoos, or more. Activities are selected with consideration for each individual client’s communication strengths and needs.

Outside of training sessions you will be asked to complete practice activities, based on your objectives. These activities serve to give you greater independence with your new communication skills and help to solidify concepts addressed in training. The tasks also save you time and money by helping you to advance your skills and get closer to meeting your goals outside of training.

Researchers have demonstrated that change in second language skills cannot occur without feedback. Knowing this, our licensed, certified speech-language pathologist will walk you through the accent modification process, giving you the correct level of feedback, each step of the way. We will even teach you something new about pronunciation, using visuals to explain challenging speech sounds. Feedback is a big part of learning (just ask B.F. Skinner). Wherever you are in the process, we adjust our feedback, so you can experience maximal learning.

conversationSometimes the way we talk can interfere with how others understand us. When you come to Lingua East for accent modification in Charlotte, it’s all about you. From assessment to goal selection to training activities, our accent modification services are custom designed for you, the individual. We refuse to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to accent modification, simply because we want you to be as successful as possible. After all, we want them to hear your ideas, not your accent.

We are now offering a discount of 33% off accent modification services until February 28, 2017. Contact us to take advantage of this deal today!

The Key to Improved Pronunciation

The International Phonetic Alphabet, also known as IPA, is a series of symbols that represent the sounds of speech. You already know that the letter a can be pronounced differently depending on the other sounds around it. Because every sound in a language does not have one letter to represent it and only it, we use IPA.

Most people who learn IPA are speech-language pathologists or linguists. However, I believe that IPA is for everyone, especially those of us who want to improve our accent in a second language. After all, if you understand how a native language affects your pronunciation in your second language, you can do something about it.IPAMy favorite resource for general IPA information is Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article for the International Phonetic Alphabet has a lot of different tables and charts that explain all the sounds of speech. These charts use very specific vocabulary to describe how these sounds are produced. You don’t have to be an expert to understand it; the text of the article explains what this vocabulary means.

 

By Badseed This vector image was created with Inkscape, via Wikimedia Commons

By Badseed. This vector image was created with Inkscape. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Another thing I like about the Wikipedia article about IPA is its treatment of vowels. Describing the pronunciation of vowels is particularly challenging because the tiniest change in tongue position can result in a big change in how we hear a vowel sound. The Wikipedia article has charts showing how tongue position affects vowels, and text that explains further.

 

As it is the International Phonetic Alphabet, the speech sounds illustrated in these charts are not just for English, but for all the languages in the world!

The other day I was talking with Amber Franklin, a researcher at Miami University in Ohio. She shared with me an excellent resource called The Speech Accent Archive. This website has a list of hundreds of languages. For each language you can find charts of that language’s speech sounds (in IPA, of course) and a recording of native speakers reading the same paragraph in English. The recording has been transcribed, or translated, into IPA beside the standard written English paragraph.

This resource is extra useful because you can compare your native language sample with the example for English from the geographic area closest to where you are (currently, there are 584 speech samples from English speakers) and identify the differences. Once you have identified the differences, you can work to reduce them.

speech accent archive

IPA is the key to improved pronunciation of English speech sounds. Arm yourself with knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and you can improve your understanding of why you have an accent (despite years of study of English) and what you can do to improve your accent.

How to Learn New Vowel Sounds

How would you explain to someone the difference between the sound a makes in bath and the a sound in bait? It’s hard, right? Kathryn Brady and her team at Southern Illinois University ran into this problem, and decided to approach accent modification with a 24-year-old native speaker of Farsi using a visual component.

Here at Lingua East, we’re huge fans of Boersma and Weenink’s Praat software, which can show you in a special graph called a spectrogram what your speech looks like. Our friend from CORSPAN, Iomi Patten, has used similar software to help native Japanese speakers working on their English r. It’s great, you can say a word into a microphone, and like magic, it appears on your computer screen as thick fuzzy lines representing the sound energy. These fuzzy lines have certain patterns and hallmarks that correspond with certain sounds.

A native speaker can produce a sound and ask someone who speaks with an accent to produce the same sound. Then, the person with the accent can use the visual feedback of the spectrogram to try to make their sound identical to yours. This can be a fun game of trial and error as the person makes small changes with their tongue or lips to try to get the spectrogram to match.

Even if the person does not hear the sound in the same way a native speaker might, using this method, they can learn to produce the sound. With listening practice, they can learn to hear the difference. People have known this for a while. Here’s some research showing it’s possible for native Japanese speakers to learn to distinguish between r and l.

But back to Brady and her team…

Their subject – let’s call him Pete – spoke English that was pretty understandable, but with a light accent. You see, this guy grew up speaking a language with only six vowels, compared to around fifteen in American English. It’s no walk in the park to learn to distinguish – let alone produce – vowels that you never used until your adult life. How can someone possibly learn how to say sounds that they can’t hear?

Figure 1, Vowel Quadrilateral

Figure 1 Vowel Quadrilateral

The researchers took an interesting approach. They decided to work with Pete on three vowels, and to look at his accuracy with another vowel that they didn’t train, just to see if what they were doing had any effect. They did four things: they gave Pete spoken models of specially chosen words that contained the vowels they were training, they showed him a picture of the position of the tongue for correct production of this vowel, they showed him a spectrogram of his production, and they showed him something called the vowel quadrilateral.

The vowel quadrilateral is a chart that shows all the different vowels of English in relation to one another according to what’s going on in the mouth. It should be noted that Pete’s version of this chart only had the vowels he was working on. See Figure 1.

The researchers hoped that by giving Pete visual explanations of how he needed to shape his mouth to lessen his accent, he would get it.

Training sessions were about half an hour a few days a week. There were eleven in total. During the training sessions, Pete produced the vowel on its own, in single syllable words, in multisyllabic words, then phrases and sentences. They also had Pete produce the vowel in short words paired with other, similar short words that did not contain the same vowel.

They recorded Pete’s productions of the training targets and showed him the spectrogram of his vowels next to a spectrogram of correctly produced vowels. They told him if he produced the vowel correctly or not, and also had him listen to recordings of himself and he had to judge them as correct or incorrect. There was a certain minimum number of correct productions and correct spectrograms he had to get before they would let him go home.

The researchers tested Pete a couple weeks after his final training session on his production of the vowels in some different words, both alone and with a carrier phrase. A carrier phrase is a phrase that goes with a word to make what the person says longer, like “This is a…”

Figure 2 Results for vowels in words, the bottom graph shows the untrained vowel.

The training worked! Pete learned during the training to produce more accurate vowels, and his accuracy remained pretty stable in the weeks after the final training session. This only really happened with the vowels that were specifically trained. The vowel the researchers measured but did not train improved a little bit, but not nearly as much as the other three. (See Figure 2, original Figure 1 from the study, used with permission.)

Furthermore, Pete noticed improvements in his speech and with his new understanding of how we produce vowels, he took a keen interest in the spectrograms and the production of the vowel the he hadn’t worked on in the study.

We asked Kathryn Brady if Pete eventually improved on that other vowel, and she reported that with further training, he mastered it!

Vowels are hard to train, mostly because the articulators do not make contact, and vowels are changed by changing the shape and size of the mouth. However, with a little bit of training, it is indeed possible.

At Lingua East we love to play with spectrograms, especially when it results in clearer communication. After all, people should hear your ideas, not your vowels.

 

Reference

Brady, K., Duewer, N., & King, A. (2016). The effectiveness of a multimodal vowel-targeted intervention in accent modification. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 43, 23-34.

 

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