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People should hear your ideas, not your accent.

Tag: accent

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.

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.

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.

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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