Estimated Read Time: 5 Minutes
Through television, travel or welcoming foreign guests, it is with a kind of wanderlust that native English speakers become discerning of the many different accents in which their language is stylized. Experienced English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers such as myself retain this fascination, but are also confronted with the challenge of helping to standardize the accents of ambitious learners.
There are many reasons to accept this challenge. Anyone who has engaged with a person from the non-English-speaking world, and found that their English is without the slightest hint of a foreign accent, can attest to the magnetism of that person’s voice. Our ears prick up and we listen intently, eager to share in their story. Speaking a new language as though you were born into it not only makes you stand out but, as we will venture to suggest, could be a powerful precursor to fluency for some learners.
WHY ARE ACCENTS RECOGNIZABLE?
Speaking is every bit as mechanical as it is intellectual. Every language has its defining use of the tongue, lips, throat and nasal passages. Someone who speaks English with an accent, does so with a physicality which probably resembles that of their native language.
There are tools that can be used to tinker with this “muscle memory” at work in our speech, as I learned during a visit to a Speech-Language Pathologist when I was in 5th Grade. I recall complaining to my mother that the appointment would be unnecessary (to put it lightly). I argued that my friends were used to my lisp, and I could not hear it at all. The Speech-Language Pathologist was a friendly, middle-aged lady, and I agreed to let her tape record our casual conversation as we became introduced. When she played the short recording back to me, I was so freaked out by my own voice that I cackled with uncontrollable laughter. Perhaps she could be of some help, I thought. She momentarily asked me to press the tip of my tongue on the spot where my hard palate meets my front teeth, and to hiss like a snake. I focused on making my “s” in this way as we continued our casual, tape-recorded conversation. I felt empowered when we listened to the new recording. It would take some practice for my perfect “s” to become automatic, but in the space of 20 minutes with this therapist, my speaking had improved.
In a similar way, non-native English speakers can become aware of mouth movements that are not useful in English, and can be introduced to ones that are, so as to perfect their accent. (Working on your accent does not just entail reducing certain habits but acquiring new ones in their stead.) This may require a bit of professional help, and practice. Thankfully, finding a Speech-Language Pathologist suited to one’s specific needs has become as easy as enrolling in an online English class. Speech-Language Pathologist that work specifically with accent reduction can be found on the Accent Connection website.
THE TOOLS OF (AND WITHIN) LANGUAGE
Mechanical processes are not the only baggage that people bring over from their native language into languages that they are learning. Other formidable culprits are the sounds that make up words, such as vowel sounds. In the early stages of learning English, students tend to use sounds from their native language as points of reference, to remember the pronunciation of English words. This may be helpful at first, but eventually becomes likes strapping rocks to the student’s accent so as to make it heavier, because the sounds in either language are often only similar, and not identical.
Students make an enormous leap towards acquiring a natural accent when they instead use simple, easy-to-remember sounds from within the English language itself. For example, the letter A can be used to remember the pronunciation of the vowel sound in “train”, and the letter “I” can be used to remember the pronunciation of “eye”. This approach might be particularly useful for students from parts of Asia, as they are accustomed to using phonetic subscripts and superscripts when learning how to read words in their own (non-phonetic) language. Zhuyin, colloquially called “Bopomofo” (derived from the first four sounds in its conventional ordering, much like our ABC), is one such system, used for learning Taiwanese Mandarin. Think of it as the small training wheels that are fastened to the rear of a child’s bicycle; the child depends on them to move forward, until he is able to do so without them. Japanese “kana” is another example of a phonetic system used alongside ideographic symbols.
IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES
An acquired natural-sounding accent is something that makes a person stand out, and makes others want to listen to them, whether it be in a professional or social context. The confidence that comes with a natural accent also bolsters learning and speaking, as the non-native speaker will feel empowered to interact more with native English speakers, and with other non-native speakers that have gained mastery over their accent.
The process of accent improvement is rewarding in itself, as it involves learning how to use tools that improve comprehension and fluency. Mechanical tools, such as the mouth and face movements that learners acquire, make it easier for them to understand even rapid bursts of babbling by native English speakers, whose mouths and faces move along the same patterns. Abstract tools, such as recognition of the five long or five short vowel sounds within words, simplify pronunciation and make it easy to learn new words.
Overall, working towards a natural-sounding accent bridges the gap between trying to learn English from the outside-in, with non-English tools, to learning English from the inside-out, with English tools, and therein exists a clear path to fluency.
Barry-Jay van Wyk is a freelance writer, editor and English teacher from South Africa. He holds a BSc degree in Human Life Sciences and HSc degree in Psychology, both from the University of Stellenbosch. Since relocating to South East Asia in 2016, he has worked with students from Taiwan, Vietnam, China and France.
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