I teach accent reduction, helping students of English to reduce their foreign accent and speak more like a native English speaker. Students often find it overwhelming to go from learning to correctly pronounce a target sound in class to consistently producing it in daily life.
In this article, I outline a set of exercises that I call the Accent Practice Progression, which can help you gradually build up the confidence and motor skills of habitually and correctly producing the right sounds in everyday speech. The exercises go from easy to hard and they also progress from least similar to most similar to natural speech. As you do these exercises, remember that pronunciation accuracy is most important. Focus on getting the sound right before speeding up.
Level 1: Reading out loud
Progression: Words > Phrases > Sentences >Paragraphs > Texts
When you start working on a new accent feature you should focus on reading aloud. By reading you can see where the sound is in the word and you can prepare your mouth to carefully articulate the sound.
Start by practicing individual words one by one before moving on to phrases. As you get more comfortable try saying sentences, and then paragraphs, and then eventually reading entire texts. This progression from shorter to longer will help you train your mouth muscles. For extra benefit, you can record yourself and play it back to see how you did. I do this in my classes so we can review the accent practice together.
In addition, it is important to practice the sound in each environment because sounds are not equally easy to pronounce in all contexts. In my lessons I provide a list of words in various sound environments. For example many people find that /v/ at the start of the word…
vex, van, vocal, vote…
the vicious vixens were voracious
… to be harder to pronounce than at the end of the word…
have, give, trove, love…
Dave, I give you all that I have
When you’ve become comfortable and fairly accurate in reading the words out loud even in normal or even fast speech, you should start trying exercises from level 2: free speaking practice.
Level 2: Free speaking practice
Progression: Practice presentations > Practice conversations
In free speaking practice, you speak freely rather than reading. This is still practice so you aren’t speaking with anyone in particular, but in an imaginary situation. This may sound silly but it is good practice because you are no longer reading from a text, so you cannot see which words have the sound you are practicing. Instead you begin to practice speaking in a more real-life context where you cannot rely on seeing the sound. Another benefit is that when speaking by yourself, nobody is waiting for you to respond, so you can take as much time as necessary to accurately produce the sound without feeling like someone is waiting for you.
There are two types of practice here. You can practice giving a practice presentation or you can have an imaginary practice conversation. Start off with a practice presentation because you can continuously speak on a topic, slowly and accurately. Next, move on to a envisioning a conversation you’ve had or might have and try to respond quickly (but accurately) to your imaginary conversation partner.
You can try and do this practice speaking out loud at home, or for a few minutes during your work break. In my classes I give my students prompts to which they record themselves answering in a 2–5 minute recording, which we will review in class. When you feel comfortable with this level of practice, you’re ready for level 3: Real conversations with real people
Level 3: Real conversations with real people
Progression: Prepared conversations > everyday encounters
In this level of practice, you are basically speaking with people while paying attention to your own pronunciation.
You start with what I call prepared conversations where you prepare for your conversation before actually having it. You might prepare common words containing your target accent feature(s). You might tell your conversation partner beforehand that you will be working on pronunciation. During the conversation you will focus on accurate production of your target sound or accent feature.
As you get used to monitoring your accent in prepared speech, try this in everyday encounters, i.e. situations that come up. You might meet a friend unexpectedly or a sales assistant might strike up a conversation with you. You can use these opportunities for practice. Eventually, the line between “practicing” your accent and actually speaking with the right accent becomes blurred, and you will realize you are speaking naturally and accurately.
Accent reduction is not easy. It takes months of deliberate and consistent practice to speak naturally with a better accent. Hopefully, this article gives you some ideas of how to go about your practice. These are exercises I recommend all my accent reduction students but I also have specific lessons for speakers of certain language groups that target problems common to them.
With consistent practice inside and outside of class, my students start to sound more and more native as we target each accent feature through the study plans, practicing vowels, consonants, word stress, rhythm, intonation, fast speech and other aspects. Remember, practice is key to improving your accent. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be worth it.