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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.