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Can You Hear My Accent?

By Coquina Restrepo

Your learning journey will eventually take you to the awkward point of talking about your learners’ accent. Whether it’s a simple issue of mispronouncing certain words or a thick sound barrier, how we speak and what we hear will always be an issue when we’re learning a new language.

Having an accent is natural when you’re speaking in your non-native language. Yet we still need to be able to speak clearly and coherently in our non-native language in order to be understood. Working on accent reduction and proper pronunciation can be difficult, which is why we should learn how to practice it alongside our other target vocabulary and grammar structures.

Is having an accent really that bad?

One of the most difficult aspects of language learning is dealing with not sounding like a native speaker. For many of us, having an accent when you speak can feel unsettling and even targeting when you’re out in public. It can make you feel like you’re a public spectacle when you’re asked to repeat yourself, and push yourself to not speaking as much as possible.

This obstacle can be a very emotional topic for some language learners. But it’s an issue that can be resolved during your practice. Proper pronunciation is directly linked to effective communication skills, where you have to learn how to be clear and emphasize the stress of different words in your target language. The best methods we have during our lessons is creating a set of accent reduction exercises to follow and help your learner listen for the target sounds in their new language.

Accent reduction is not a major step towards fluency, but can help support your learner to develop their listening skills and confidence in speaking. Much of ESL is actually “ear training”, where your learner has to be able to pick up on the phonetic signals and patterns in speech in order to effectively communicate. When you work on accent reduction with your learner, your practicing applied ear training skills that will help them “hear” the way their target language is supposed to sound. That will directly translate into them increasing their ability to mimic those sounds during their practice and daily conversational training.

Accent vs Dialect

We should always be clear about the specific way we can hear the same language differently. First, we need to remember a very important fact about any language: No two native speakers speak exactly alike.

Every language is broken up into dialects, and American English contains over twenty different regional dialects and hundreds of local dialects spread throughout the country! It can sometimes seem that crossing into a different state is like visiting a foreign country, even when someone is speaking the same language as you. Dialects reflect the cultural character of a local place. They contain slightly different pronunciations, different metaphors and sometimes even a different rhythm that other regions or neighborhoods.

An accent, however, reflects an entirely different cultural boundary than a dialect. Accents reflect an unfamiliarity with the phonetic nuances of a second language that are difficult to adapt to in a short amount of time. And, unfortunately, most people tend to judge language learners skills by their accents even if they’ve been studying ESL for years.

While British and Australian actors may be able to easily adopt various American accents, they aren’t overcoming a significant grammar or rhythm barrier that keeps them from practicing their speech craft. Other actors and actresses have had to completely adapt the way that they speak in order to play a native role and demonstrate mastery of their craft. Actresses like Mila Kunis (first language: Russian) , Natalie Portman (first language: Hebrew) and Sandra Bullock (first language: German) were all born abroad and learned English as a second language. They had to develop their pronunciation skills alongside their ESL learning journey, as well as memorize an entire movie script.

What is the most common accent to develop in ESL?

It’s helpful to note that most learners don’t intend to “sound local” when they work on accent reduction. They’re looking to develop a “neutral accent”. Neutral accents have the general rhythm and phonetic pronunciation as most native speakers without any distinguishing marks or notes. Their accent may sound “non-geographic” but they speak clearly and you can understand what is being said.

In order to develop this standard accent, we have to look at the underlying issues of our learners’ current speech barriers. Let’s say there are three classifications for accents:

1. Grammar error accent

This is the most common kind of mistake that comes along when you’re unfamiliar with grammar structures. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an “accent” problem as it is a technical skill issue.

Ex: “I is go to the bank.”

Ex2: “We leave to work every Friday at 9:00am.”

The “accent” is more a grammatical error when the sentence structure “sounds” wrong to a native speaker. This speaking error is common for first time learners and it’s easier for native speakers to pick up on since these mistakes don’t follow the general rules and “flow” of standard English grammar.

Students who make these kinds of mistakes can come from different levels of fluency and can make these mistakes occasionally. The best way to resolve this issue is to practice reading skills through comprehension questioning.

Tip: Practice reading short texts in class and ask your learner to summarize what they’ve read to you in two or three short sentences. This helps practice their reflection skills in a different language and forces them to think about how to clearly explain their opinion while remembering the grammatical structures used.

2. Weak pronunciation skill accent

Native speakers are drilled in the speaking and reading rules of their native language since Elementary school. These phonetic “rules” of being able to see and hear words become second nature to us because of our ear training since infancy.

Yet new language learners will have to re-learn how to hear and read these new words because they’re working in an entirely different phonetic system. You may find your learners will have difficulty recognizing words without distinctive phonetic spellings. These are cultural changes that have to be slowly developed alongside your learners’ new vocabulary so they can “hear” the changes and differences between English and their new language. Some of these mistakes may seem small to us at first, but they do add up into general mispronunciations over time.

Ex. Missing the soft ‘a’ in ‘alphabet’.

Ex. German readers missing the ‘oo’ or ‘-end’ sound in words when they’re culturally spent ‘ü’, ‘ö’ and ‘ünt’.

You’ll see students who have issues with weak pronunciation tend to speak slower, often dragging their sentences and speak in a monotone without inflection. Practice clear dictation skills with these students and try to review how to enunciate with proper reflection.

Tip: Students who first read a script out loud and then listen to a recording by native speakers will be able to pick up on their pronunciation skills faster. Try reading short scripts in your lessons and listening to recordings to help train their ear and practice clear speaking skills.

3. Phonetic accent

Some accent issues stem from a lack of training in certain pronunciations and linguistic mistranslations. Certain sounds in our language don’t translate well into others or completely don’t exist. Phonetic training is so important to young children for early language comprehension because we’ve trained our minds to hear to distinguished meaning of each word. As an adult, it’s hard to hear these differences and it can be difficult to retain both our minds and our mouths to develop the proper pronunciation if it’s a completely different phonetic system.

Ex. Difficulty pronouncing the ‘th’ sound.

Ex. Inability to roll ‘r’.

Ex. The Arabic ‘kh’ sound doesn’t have an equivalent in English.

Students with this speaking issue are often trying to develop their whole language skills, where they’re learning basic comprehension along side conversation and general reading skills. They’re still practicing direct translation in their heads before speaking and will often struggle to “find the right word” and settle for using smaller words that they’re more comfortable with. Don’t push this student to practice everything at once: slowly develop their pronunciation skills through grammar and vocabulary activities in each lesson.

Tip: Take time out of the beginning of each lesson to slowly read over the target words. Then, at the end of class, have them recall as many as those words without looking at a vocabulary list then see if they can make a basic sentence with them. This practices their memory recall and has the learner slow down to “listen for” the words in their short term memory.

Inconsistencies in accent

As you practice and train in second language acquisition, you will notice your learners’ accent will change along the way. A second language accent adapts along your language skill lines, changing to reflect how comfortable you are in your new language and how you can pick up on the cultural dialects and metaphors.

You may feel rushed to completely change you or your learners’ accent as you practice. Please understand that accent reduction is a slow process that happens naturally over time as you become more comfortable speaking and listening in your target language. Focus more on the small steps and successes from being able to properly pronounce a longer word or finally be able to make the “th” sound in the middle of a word.

Proper ear training when learning.

Exposing your learner to a new language involves training their ears to listen to the distinctive sounds of their new language. This involves slowly going over the proper pronunciation, tempo and rhythm, and the general beat of how a sentence flows. It sounds natural to native speakers but it’s a completely different sound structure to non-natives.

Traditional study materials don’t have the pronunciation and rhythm a native speaker has. Most study materials are slowed down and focus on developing word recognition rather than proper inflection. Audio materials for ESL learners should be slightly mixed, including non-study materials like short video clips from regular TV shows and movies as well as guided practice. Learners should be exposed to the way native speakers casually speak, and it’s up to tutors to help the learner learn how t