Accentuate the Beat: Accent Reduction Classes for International Speakers of English
I love the English language. It’s a magnificent communication tool – one that has successfully spread its lexicon around the globe for more than 500 years. Throughout the world, English words are commonly heard and seen: hamburger, TV, blue jeans, OK, airport, stop, golf, tennis, no problem. These English-isms and hundreds more like them, have successfully infiltrated the vocabularies of many world’s languages.
Indeed, English has been the lingua franca of the worlds of business, entertainment and international affairs since the dawn of the British Empire. The Economist magazine reports that, today, two-thirds of all scientific papers are published in English. Nearly half of all business deals in Europe are conducted in English. More than two-thirds of the world’s daily emails are written in English.
Since communication skills, particularly oral communication skills, are essential to success in business, making yourself understood in English is imperative for those who want to express their thoughts and ideas to an English-speaking audience. But doing this poses a problem for many International speakers of English, since speaking skills are the most difficult of all the language skills to master. Speaking skills are also the least studied and practiced in most international language school curricula.
Spoken International business English remains a great stumbling block for many professionals and leaders who must communicate in English. Foreign accent interference is the number one challenge restricting the open exchange of world-class solutions to worldwide problems. Some of the world’s greatest ideas are not being fully or clearly articulated simply because many International speakers feel inadequate, intimated or inconsequential speaking up at meetings because of their foreign accents.
Yet, this doesn’t have to be the case. By learning, understanding and using the basic vocal features known as intonation, rhythm, and stress, International speakers of English can successfully convey meaning and be clearly heard and understood in the process.
Your Accent is Not the Problem
Many International speakers of English, such as the globally popular actors Jacki Chan and Penelope Cruz, have strong accents when they speak English, yet they are both well understood by native speakers of English. They both make lucrative livings in spite of their accents. Why? We love their accents. In fact, we love accents of all kinds – so long as the speaker is speaking in accordance with the “sounds of English,” or what we call the “pitch” and “rhythms” of English. As long as the sounds are harmonious to our English-speaking ear, native speakers can easily understand foreign accents.
Chan and Cruz speak “in harmony” with the rhythms, intonations and cadence patterns of North American English. They have mastered where to place stress within words and sentences and how to easily manage the beats and rhythms of the language.
I have learned that accent is not the problem my students have. Rather, it’s simply that they have not yet trained their ear to hear the basic sound patterns of English – i.e. the rise and fall of the voice, the uses of stress, de-stress and reductions, and the pitch variations used in every oral expression. Subsequently, they are not yet speaking in harmony with the intonation and cadence patterns of the language.
Most often, the problem lies in the fact that they are applying the sound patterns of their Mother Tongue to their spoken English. Once International speakers hear and grasp the melodies of English, they can sing along with the vast repertoire of its enormous songbook.
A case in point is Katia Meirelles, whom I coached in New York City for more than a year. When Katia moved to New York from Brazil, people made fun of her because of her strong accent. She says some would even mimic her. “I always felt so embarrassed,” she told me recently. “I was afraid to fail in job interviews, and to sound ridiculous over the phone or even at an informal gathering with friends.”
But as we worked together, Katia learned to pay attention to the musical quality of words and sentences, and how to relax and exercise the tongue and muscles of the mouth.
“My speaking has really improved,” says Katia, who works for a major International Private Bank, which does business throughout the world. “I became confident that I could be understood in any situation, because English became much easier for me to understand.”
We Speak in Sound Units
Typically, International speakers of English are taught structure, lexicon, the functions of grammar and the parts of speech when they are learning English. They are taught in classrooms with textbooks open. They are taught English word by word, function by function, with a strong emphasis on word order, vocabulary and grammar. Although International students are taught pronunciation, rarely are they taught accent reduction.
When learning to actually speak English, it is best to temporarily put aside (not discard) everything already learned from textbooks. Because in the classroom we learn new the language word by word, according to what our eyes see. But, outside the classroom we do not speak word by word. Rather we speak in very melodic sound units, especially in English. A lot of what we learned with our eyes in the classroom is of no use to us now; we must learn to speak by ear. (Besides, some 61% of the words in the English language have silent or unpronounced letters – your eyes will get it wrong 61% of the time.)
You must train your ear to hear the way in which native speakers speak. Learn to hear the words within the melody of the sound units, rather than as individual words as they would appear written on the page.
For example, American Accent specialist, Ann Cook explains in her book American Accent Training that we don’t say “Bob is on the phone.” We say “Bobizon thefone.” We don’t say, “cream and sugar”, we say “cream’n sugar”. We shorten and contract words, we elongate vowels and clip the endings of words – gliding it all together harmoniously into very distinct rhythms and melodies.
The sound units of Standard North American English are steeped in the rhythms patterns of American jazz. As you train your ear, you begin to hear the many sounds that are so often contracted and staccato, like Charlie Parker’s saxophone playing: “should have” becomes “should’ve” or even “shoulda”; “going to” becomes “gonna”; “they will” becomes “they’ll”. Other sounds glide together as smoothly and as sensually as the sounds of Miles Davis’ trumpet: “smooth as silk” sounds like “smooooth as silk”.
As you begin to speak how you hear, you’ll realize that your accent is not a problem. You’ll begin to hear and to focus on the sounds of what is being said. Once you begin to speak in harmony with these sounds, even though your Mother Tongue is still evident, you will be easily heard and understood because you are in sync with the resonances of the language.
It’s Not What You Say but How You Say It!
This old adage has been around for ages, and for a very good reason. It speaks clearly to learning and practicing accent reduction. English is a “stressed” or “beat-driven” language. Its articulation and stress patterns are very strongly influenced by the speaker’s emotions and intended meaning. Take for example, the following seven-word sentence: “I never said he stole the money.” Where we put the stress within the sentence depends upon the emotion we want to convey while making this statement:
- I never said he stole the money (meaning: I didn’t say it; someone else said it!).
- I never said he stole the money (meaning: I never said it; I swear I didn’t).
- I never said he stole the money (meaning: I never said he stole it; I may have insinuated it).
- I never said he stole the money (meaning: I didn’t mean him; I meant someone else).
- I never said he stole the money (meaning: I didn’t say he stole it; I said he borrowed it).
- I never said he stole the money (meaning: not the special money; he stole some other money).
- I never said he stole the money (meaning: he didn’t steal the money; he may have stolen the jewels, however!).
This seven-word sentence can have seven different meanings just by changing where the stress is place with the sentence. Stress, rhythm, phrasing, pauses, pitch, intonation and inflection – these are the musical elements of speaking English well.
Speak to be Heard
Even if your English is Cambridge Advance English-perfect, and you can correctly pronounce all of the individual vowel and consonant sounds of English, Mother Tongue interference will continue to block the expression of your ideas, concepts and solutions until you master the stress, rhythm and intonation patterns of spoken English.
The good news: Once you train your ear, you’re well on your way. Begin to listen to how things are being said. Explore. Be curious. Get out of the box and start to listen to English in ways you haven’t before. Rent a movie, listen to www.cbc.ca or any of the Public Radio Stations in the U.S. The only way to beat foreign accent interference is to listen and practice, listen and practice and keep on practicing speaking “like a native speaker.” You’ll be amazed at how great you sound.
Jazz up your English: A Few Terms and Tips
Lingua franca: a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different.
English has been the lingua franca of international commerce since the 16th century. The “accent” of English used most today in the world of International business is Standard North American English. Standard North American English pronunciation and accent patterns are akin to the sound patterns of American jazz. Believe it or not, hearing, learning and using its jazzy stress, rhythm and intonation patterns are not difficult skills to learn and use.
Here are some great tips:
- Develop a great ear. Listen not only to what is said but also to how things are said.
- Imitate what you hear. Record English speaking podcasts and radio and TV programs as often as you can. Play them back, while repeatedly stopping them to give yourself time to imitate exactly what you have just heard in exactly the same way it was said.
- Exaggerate to start. Make your sounds big. Make your North American accent sound “over the top.” Then, after a few practices, use a normal voice to say the sounds. You’ll be shocked at how much you’ve improved.
- Don’t be shy. Allow yourself the freedom to play with the sounds. Experiment. Have fun. Try to sound just like the native speakers you hear around you. Remember: Practice makes perfect!
- Hire a teacher or a coach. Having live feedback from a native speaker can only help you articulate clearly. A good coach or teacher acts as your ear, until you have developed yours.
NEW PRODUCT NOW AVAILABLE: Accentuate the Beat: The Video Workbook.
Watch a free mini-lesson on vowels from the video workbook.
Please take a few minutes to listen to the following video clip.
Enjoy! Have fun!
Expert Advice on Accent Reduction – YouTube