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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.