A big part of changing the way you speak is understanding the speech patterns you use and how what you hear may be different from what is actually being said. Our native language influences our brain from an early age, creating a filter for speech sounds, or a phonological system. When we learn a new language, our filter interprets the sounds we hear and tries to match them with known quantities. So while the new language may have different sounds, we aren’t always hearing them. Fortunately, when these sounds are pointed out with a contrasting sound (such as the error we produce with our accent), we can hear the difference, and begin to correct our production. To read a layperson’s take on the science behind accents, read Wired Magazine’s Nick Stockton’s recent article.
Computer programmers, engineers, IT professionals, medical professionals – what do they have in common? Jargon. Each of these fields (among many others) has their own technical language they use for precision when discussing topics in the field. For those whose native language is not English, they may have learned this jargon in English from other non-native speakers, and unknowingly adopted incorrect pronunciation when they first learned the terminology. Habits can be very hard change, especially when you are unaware of the habit. One benefit of working with an accent trainer is getting feedback on the words you use most. Not only can the trainer point out to you your habitual mispronunciations, but also they can teach you about stress patterns for the words you need in your field. Improve your communication at work today. For more information and a free consultation, click here.
Sorry, could you repeat that please? Some people have a harder time than others when it comes to understanding a speaker with a foreign accent. Many people have a hard time asking for clarification when they don’t understand, but it is important to be willing to ask in order to reduce misunderstandings. Phone calls can be especially difficult. Some ideas? Ask specific questions with yes or no answers, repeat key words you understood to establish the topic, and rephrase what you heard to be certain you understood. For more ideas, read here.
In the new film Gone Girl, Rosamund Pike adopts an American accent to play an American character with authenticity. How did she do it? She used an accent coach to help her learn the sounds and patterns she needed to change. In addition, she very likely spent a great deal of time practicing her new speech sounds. Did she lose her native accent? No, she still speaks British English, as you can see on her recent Today Show interview, but she can switch to speaking as an American if she desires. Check her out in the trailer for what is sure to be a popular new movie.
You are visiting a neighbor’s house, and you compliment the art on their wall. They immediately take it down and insist that you take it as their gift to you. Are they being sincere? It can be hard to judge, and apparently, if they are speaking with an accent, it can influence what you think of their sincerity. A recent study at USC found that listening to information in accented vs. non-accented speech can affect the listener’s subsequent interpretation of events. If the listener comes from the culture of the accented speech, they are more likely to follow their native cultural trends in their reading of the situation, but if they are mono-cultural Americans, they are more likely to impose their American judgments and values when considering what they heard. Whoever your listeners may be, the clearer you can be in your speech, the better the resulting communication. Read more about the study here.
Image: Associated Press
Congratulations to the scientists and engineers whose 10-month mission to Mars has successfully put a probe in orbit around the red planet. The success of the mission is a tribute to the hard work of many in India, and an inspiration to young people there to pursue science. It is also likely to lead to increased global interest in what India has to offer for space travel and transport, as they demonstrated an ability to reach this achievement with a lower budget than has been seen before. As India, the US and other countries work together to reach the frontiers of space exploration, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively will continue to be paramount. Listen to India’s Prime Minister talk about the accomplishment (in English) here.
Accented speech always contains vowel errors. Vowels can be tricky to correct, because they do not have obvious placement targets for your mouth. We also have to overcome the mapping in our brains. We actually hear a different vowel than is being spoken when we listen to a foreign language. This is because our brain likes to sort the vowel sounds into our own familiar sound system. When learning American English, it is helpful to create word sets and re-organize how we hear vowels. A good place to start is to listen to the vowels by themselves. You can find recordings of words and isolated vowel sounds online. Check out this handy chart with recorded vowel sounds created at the University of Kansas.
Ever wonder how people sound in different parts of the United States? PBS’s extensive website, “Do You Speak American?” has a wealth of information about regional variation in American English. Not only do we use different words in different parts of the country, but our accents are different. You can listen to recordings from different cities across the US here. How does your city sound compared to the others?
Image credit: Robert Delaney
Why is American English so different from British English? Besides the use different vocabulary, there are specific sound differences in the accent. While there are many different accents in both countries, if we compare what is considered “standard American” with British RP (Received Pronunciation, or the British English you hear on the BBC), one of the major differences is in the pronunciation of the consonant “r.” British English leaves out the “r” sound in the middle and ends of words (“bird” sounds more like “buhd”) while the American English word includes the “r”. For a little more about the difference and when it may have started, read Matt Soniak’s article on MentalFloss.
Image credit: splatter.com, HBO
An impressive range of British regional accents can be heard in the television series Game of Thrones. Many characters are portrayed with an accent that matches their upbringing and heritage. For those in the know, this adds an element of authenticity to the character and allows the viewer to make associations about them based on the way they speak. But just how accurately are accents being used? Gawker writer’s Max Read’s take? It’s a mixed bag. Read the details here.
Every accent has its own distinct character, but often one of the elements that can make you hard to understand has to do with the ends of words. In American English, we usually pronounce sounds at end of a word, unless the word ends with a silent “e” (such as in the words name, goose, slice) or the word has been adopted into English from a foreign language (such as the words bourgeois, gourmet). A common error found in many foreign accents is de-voicing final consonants (for example, saying “bet” instead of “bed”), saying the final sound of the word too softly or leaving it off entirely. This error can be compounded by the speaker’s lack of confidence and desire not to call attention to his or her accent.
Practice reading aloud, and slow down enough to say all of the sounds you see in the written words. You will feel your mouth moving more than you are used to. Next, try having a short conversation using this same technique. You may find that people can understand what you are saying better because you are putting the end sounds on your words.
Regional varieties of American English are still going strong in this country, despite the homogenization of “broadcast speech” heard on the tv news. You might be interested to learn what your own biases are when it comes to labeling regional accents as “standard.” While linguists believe that every region has its own standard, there are socio-linguistic trends and preferences that make people believe one American accent is more typical than another. When you are trying to make yourself understood, your best approach is to strive for an accent that is comfortable for you, matches those with who you communicate the most, and has some of the elements used in American accent training such as slow rate and clearly pronounced consonant sounds.
Chances are, if you are not a native speaker of English, you have some words you are uncertain about pronouncing. You might even avoid using them, even though you know what they mean, because you don’t want to say them incorrectly. One excellent resource for checking your pronunciation is using online dictionaries. They have the advantage of recordings to play back, to hear a native speaker say the word. This is preferable to a digitized recording (computer generated), because the stress and intonation will be natural sounding and correct.
If you are also working on acquiring new vocabulary, you may like the simplified definitions and examples you will find in Merriam Webster’s Learner's Dictionary. When trying new words, record yourself and compare your pronunciation to what you hear on the website. You may notice differences in the recording that you cannot hear when you are speaking.
Did you know? Many native speakers of American English mispronounce the word "probably." You might have learned an incorrect pronunciation from people around you. Check out the correct pronunciation here.
Linguist Justyna Kozyra-Bober recently investigated the likelihood that the main characters in the FX hit “The Americans,” Russian-born spies living a 1980’s suburban American life, would speak with no trace of a Russian accent. (Read her article in Language Magazine.) While her conclusion was that the show’s realism is flawed by the fact that as adult emigrants, the Russians would not be capable of native proficiency in their pronunciation, we should not be discouraged by this information. Instead, it is a good reminder that the goal of accent training is not to lose one’s accent entirely, but rather to improve pronunciation for clear communication.
Interestingly, the male lead, Matthew Rhys, is a Welsh actor, who was educated in Welsh-medium schools and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. His ability to speak with a near-perfect American accent is a testament to what one would have to presume was a great dedication on his part to his American accent training.
TV and movies teach us a lot when learning a new language. But did you know, not only can listening to native speakers on TV and in films help your American Accent, but using subtitles in English can also boost your pronunciation? A recent study shows that by following along with written text in the language that is being spoken, your brain absorbs more of the patterning required for correct pronunciation. Finally, a fun and easy way to improve your accent while you relax and enjoy the show!
One of the most commonly mispronounced sounds in American English is the "th" sound. This is likely due to the fact that the “th” phonemes are rare sounds, not found in most European and Asian languages. When we do not have a sound in our own language, the natural tendency to substitute a similar sound, such as “z,” “d” or “t.” Unfortunately, this has a big impact on accent, because the “th” sound is found in 20% of the 25 words we say the most in English. The most commonly used word, “the,” begins with this sound. So when we mispronounce “th,” it is very noticeable in everyday speech.
Common mispronunciations of this sound involve improper tongue placement. To make the “th” sound, the tip of the tongue needs to rest between the teeth. Try making the “th” sound by itself. First make the “quiet th,” as in the words “think” and “with.” Then add voicing to make voiced “th,” as in “that,” “them” and “the.”
Many non-native English speakers ask the question, what is the "typical" American accent? Some regional dialects sound more standard than others, but the speakers who are most easily understood are those who sound like they are from nowhere in particular. People from different parts of the US would say that television news anchors sound like them, because they speak in a style which is easily understood by all. You might be surprised to know that TV broadcasters speak more slowly than the average American, and use pronunciation techniques taught in accent training, such as pronouncing all consonants in a word. Read more about the typical American sound you hear in broadcasting here.
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