Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Accent reduction has become a useful service for non-native English speakers. Others have been less comfortable with the idea of changing the way they communicate. Some have told me that their accent is part of their identity and that they wouldn’t want to change how they sound. If you don’t want to change, you won’t change. Change must come from within, and although there is no need to justify why you would prefer to not change something like an accent or sound, enjoying your own sound is a perfectly legitimate reason to continue speaking with the accent you currently have. But, a thick accent is distracting and leaves a part of your message undelivered. Mistakes in sound, grammar, and delivery reduce credibility and increase the challenges in being recognized for all of the value we bring to the table. Do we speak to entertain ourselves or rather to deliver a message that we think is essential and useful to our audience?
Before we continue, let me clarify that the practice of Accent Reduction does not mean that you will not have an accent. You will continue to speak with an accent, but not with an accent that causes you to trip or mispronounce words, or fight the never-ending, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” Accent reduction simply offers specific exercises to strengthen the muscles that we use to make sounds so that you can speak with more definition, clarity, and confidence. Even the most proficient second language speaker will still have an accent that most native speakers can pick up as ‘foreign”. An added benefit is that you will also understand those speakers that you just can’t get because they speak too fast or mumble, according to your ear.
The challenge for most non-native English speakers is the range of vowel sounds we make in English with just 5 vowels. The letters themselves, positioned in certain patterns, will abide by rules that give us clues to how to make those sounds. On the other hand, English is known for its use of exceptions for good reason. Let’s use the example in the table below.
Pay Pays Paid
Lay Lays Laid
May Mays Maid
Ray Rays Raid
Say Says Said
In the first column, each of the words is pronounced with the same -ay sounds. But in the second and third columns, the first 4 examples are pronounced with the same ending sound, -ays and -aid, but the last two are pronounced sez and sed. There is no way that anyone could know this just by virtue of reading. Exposure and repetition with focused practice are tools that allow us to remember the different sounds in the same letter sequence.
A more popular example among second language English speakers is the letter sequence -ough. Simple enough for most first-language speakers the list below, read aloud, gives the native speaker a clue into the challenges of learning to speak English from the written word.
Tough – Though – Through – Thought – Taught
Combine that challenge with the challenge in making the -th sound clearly (but without spitting or sticking out your tongue) and you can imagine the difficulty in delivering a sentence like this one. Simple enough, for most of us, but quite a challenge when we are unaccustomed to seeing the patterns.
Though there are thirty-three tough things that we thought about throughout the day.
Suffixes are also good examples of sounds that differ from their spelling. Say the words anxious and nervous, and you will hear that the -ous is actually pronounced -is. Or you could use the suffix-ary, as in stationary or sanctuary, to hear that it is spoken with an -ery sound.
To begin your practice, we start with the vowel sounds in all 12 of their glorious and somewhat unique to English sounds to strengthen the muscles you use and also train your ear to hear the distinctiveness of each sound. We point out the patterns in spelling that exist and the importance of ignoring spelling to pay attention more closely to the sound only, contrary to how most are taught to speak English in the first place. Once the vowel sounds are accurate and strengthened, we can wrap the consonant sounds around the strong vowels to find balance between the written word and the vocal sound. From there, we can move from sounds and words to sentences, focusing on reductions, contractions, and extreme changes in how words are pronounced. Did you eat, becomes d’d ja eet, and eventually j’eet, as I am most likely to ask family and friends as they come through the door.
Of course, we must also work on stress and intonation. The word project can be pronounced with stress on the first or second syllable. Such a mistake changes the meaning of the word and can confuse the listener. Grammar, the use of phrasal verbs, and other more concrete skills are also part of the delivery of your message and must be addressed with equal attention.
The easiest way to determine your need for help with accent reduction is to listen to yourself. Take the time to record yourself reading this article. Listen back to It and see if you are comfortable with the way you sound. For a more general assessment, use speech recognition technology to see how many errors the computer makes when listening to you speak. You can then transcribe the audio recording to give you the material that you can check for grammar and vocabulary. Or you can contact Beacon BCS, and we can offer you an assessment as well as a plan to improve what you already know about your ESL skills.
“We all have a tendency to avoid our weaknesses.
When we do that, we never progress or get any better.”
– Jocko Willink