Reducing Your Accent Scientifically
Please note: italki originally posted my article an abridged form as a teacher success story. Here is the unabridged version.
I teach accent reduction, helping English learners sound less foreign and more native. My background in linguistics and phonetics helps me teach students the subtle details that separate the average English learner from the exceptional. Whether it’s to sound more professional in business, academics, or social situations, my coaching helps students reduce their accent and better English.
Explaining things in simple terms
I love languages. I’m constantly studying them and learning about them. Studying other languages helps me teach my students better because I can explain things to them in simple terms that they are familiar with. Often I know something about their language’s phonology too. When I use that to explain, my students learn more quickly because they already have a frame of reference.
Example 1: Teaching by analogy
To teach students, I often use examples from students’ own languages to teach them how English sounds work similarly or differently. Russian students typically have trouble with English L, pronouncing it either too hard (deep in the throat), or too lightly (as if followed by a y). This is the Russian accent’s most noticeable feature.
English L is slightly different. To help them, I ask my students when a Russian L is “myakiy” (soft) or “tvyordiy” (hard). Every consonant in Russian is hard or soft, and Russians all know this. “A sound is soft or hard, depending on the vowel that follows,” students will explain.
“English also has hard and soft L,” I tell them, “however in English, whether L is hard or soft depends on its position in the syllable. It is soft at the start of a syllable, and hard at the end.” And like that, my students immediately understand the basic environmental difference between Russian and English L sounds! Thanks to the examples I give, students tell me it’s really easy to understand when to produce which sound and feel very tangible progress in their accent reduction!
Example 2: Adapting to constraints
Accent reduction can’t be rushed. However, sometimes adaptability is key. Recently, a new Japanese student told me she needed help pronouncing the English syllable-final dark L sound for an oral exam next week. Giving her an accent diagnosis, I quickly realized she wasn’t even able to do the normal L sound, instead pronouncing all her L’s like R’s. Teaching her the dark L sound in a mere 45 minutes would be quite unlikely.
I switched tactics. Instead of attempting to teach her a perfect dark L sound, I taught her a non-standard but widely understood version. I taught her vocalized L. Vocalized L is when dark L is pronounced like a w, so “all” is “aww” and “people” is “peepoh”. This phenomenon is common in native English language dialects.
I told her that I would teach her a non-standard form to help her pass the exam. Next time I’d teach her the correct but much more difficult form. She agreed, and we got to work. I guided her mouth movements to produce the easier w sound, observing her lips, demonstrating myself and with video clips. Soon, she was vocalizing those L’s perfectly. To the untrained ear, she was perfectly pronouncing words like “all” and “scale”. She definitely wasn’t pronouncing it like “are” or “scare” like she had been before. Like this, I was able to adapt to her tight deadline and prepare her for her exam!
Example 3: Patience and guidance
Sometimes, students’ native languages completely lack a sound, and I have to give students specific instructions to guide their mouth and tongue muscles to produce it.
The dental fricative sound θ in words like “thin” and “thanks” is a difficult sound for many because it is both rare among world languages and strange in the manner it is produced. One Vietnamese student had lived half of his life in the US but could neither pronounce nor hear the difference between these sounds. No one had ever corrected him and his brain never got used to even hearing the difference!
Through repeating word lists, listening to my pronunciation and other materials, he started to differentiate “th” from “t”. I guided him, helping him adjust his tongue, his airflow, and the pressure of his tongue against his teeth. He struggled, and initially, when he did pronounce it correctly, he could not even hear it. However, eventually he was able to pronounce it and hear it more reliably, and he could even feel the difference in his mouth. His epiphany was just as rewarding for him as it was for me! He could finally reliably pronounce it. All that remained was practice!
Why language coaching helps
Getting a more native accent is not easy. An accent is simply pronouncing the sounds of your target language with the sounds of your native language. This can happen because you can hear the difference but aren’t able to correctly produce the sounds, or because you can’t even hear the difference and therefore learned it incorrectly. Furthermore, native speakers are often too nice to correct your pronunciation, and teachers usually only teach you enough for you to understand and be understood. Because of this, it can be difficult to improve your accent without a coach.
I love teaching students. Seeing the look on a student’s face when they finally hear the subtle sound differences and when they can pronounce the sound correctly is one of the most rewarding things for me. I love helping students achieve their goals. With my background in linguistics and phonetics, I help students improve their accent, but also help them better appreciate their own mother tongue, and human language in general. Improving your accent is difficult, but it will be worth it, so let’s work together to discover the wonderful world of words, sounds, and the English language!