“I just don’t get it. I’ve been here for 23 years and I still have a heavy accent. How come?” I heard this question last week when I was sitting next to a businessman on a flight. He was super smart, savvy, and an “in on the know” professional. His question didn’t surprise me. Probably because I’ve been asked it somewhere north of 200 times.
So why is it that mastering the American accent seems to be so agonizingly difficult? (It’s not… but we’ll get to that later.) Part of the reason has to do with how we learn language in the first place. Let’s begin at the beginning: infancy.
Newborns and babies have a pressing and exceptionally important task at hand. They need to figure out the difference between sounds, and the sounds of their “language”. They need to differentiate between the sound “s” makes in the word “measure”, and the sound a car motor makes. They’re similar, but certainly not the same. In other words, the first step to language learning is sound discrimination. Now over time, babies and toddlers master this critical step and their powerful little brains start weeding out random sounds from those spoken by their caregivers. This process is called NLNC, Native Language Neural Commitment.
The end result is that by the time we all reach adulthood, it’s painfully difficult to hear the fine nuances between certain foreign language sounds that don’t exist in our own language. See if you can hear the difference in pronunciation between the Zulu words “to whitewash” and “to fix”.
How about between the German words “to offer” and “to pray”?
Or between the words for “palace” and “dirt” in Gujarati? I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t hear the difference.
Which takes us back to why, without instruction, it can be extraordinarily challenging to learn English pronunciation. Some adult learners simply may not have the context to hear the difference between sounds that are (frustratingly) similar. Kind-of like how the above words are for the American ear. And if you can’t “hear” a sound, it’s awfully difficult to produce it.
That’s one of the reasons why, for adult foreign language learners, pronunciation can be an extraordinary challenge. Yet our accent coaches have worked with upwards of 1,000 adult learners and not one person has ever failed to learn how to make each and every English vowel and consonant. Part of the trick is showing people how to “feel” sounds. While this may seem crazy, it means helping people become aware of how it feels when they accurately place their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw when pronouncing new sounds. There are other tricks of the trade too. If you’re interested, ask us for more. We’ll be happy to pass them along.
Hollywood? Broadway? Ann Arbor, MI? Where do you find a real Accent trainer? It used to be, only five short years ago, that an accent expert was someone who trained actors and actresses how to speak with a foreign accent for a specific role. Think Tom Hanks in Forest Gump, Kevin Kline in French Kiss, or Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. And of course, who could possibly forget the scene in The Pink Panther where the accent trainer was trying to teach Steve Martin how to say ‘hamburger’ with an American accent?
But these days, when someone uses the terms “accent trainer” or “accent coach,” an altogether different set of expertise comes to mind…at least for those of us in the world of corporate, multicultural diversity training. The terms no longer conjure up visions of a movie star being prepped for his or her role in an upcoming blockbuster. Nowadays, the image is often one of foreign-born business professionals wanting to learn English pronunciation in order to convey–not a set of scripted lines–but technical and professional expertise in the real world of team building and good client service. In conference rooms and training offices around the globe, an accent trainer refers to someone creating inclusiveness in our business environments by eliminating language barriers in our diverse, global workforce.
What do an accent trainer in Hollywood and, say, Ann Arbor, MI have in common? If we scratch below the surface, a whole lot! While those working in the film industry tend to think of this line of work as ‘adding an accent’, people, quite mistakenly, think of corporate accent trainers as ‘taking away’ a person’s accent. Not so. At least not at the Accent Reduction Institute. As I’ve talked about in previous blogs, ‘accent reduction’ is a deceiving misnomer for our line of work. Both kinds of accent trainers mentioned above enable people to pronounce sounds that exist in a target language that don’t occur in his/her first language. A highly proficient accent trainer –a true expert- will teach people how to go from one accent to another.
At the Accent Reduction Institute, we call this code-switching, and it’s an integral part of our curriculum. Why? Because it’s always about giving people a choice of how, where, and when they’d like to express and convey their ideas and expertise. Accent trainers in the film industry and accent trainers for the business world may have two different objectives. But we share one common denominator: we teach people how to speak with clarity, confidence, authenticity, and ease.
What would you think if you woke up one day and suddenly your usual speech patterns were replaced by a seemingly foreign accent? Suddenly, the ‘you’ that everyone knows and loves has disappeared! How much of your identity would you feel was compromised? For me, the worst part would be not having the ability to choose which accent to adopt and not knowing how to turn it on and off at will. (At the Accent Reduction Institute, we call this ‘code switching’ and it’s part of our accent neutralization training program.)
Although the scenario described above may seem like something from a children’s novel, for sufferers of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) it’s an unpleasant reality. The syndrome usually occurs after a brain injury, trauma, or stroke, and it’s suggested that the best diagnostic team for the rare disorder includes a neurologist, radiologist, neuropsychologist, clinical psychologist, and speech-language pathologist. That’s quite a team for a disorder that impacts a person’s speech. Perhaps this speaks (no pun intended) to the complexity of the language learning process.
So what’s the big deal about a new speech pattern or accent? I think the core of the issue is that personal identity, how we portray ourselves to others, and how others see us, includes our language style. And even if FAS doesn’t make us feel different about ourselves, it may impact the way others perceive us. Professor Nick Miller states, “The notion that sufferers speak in a foreign language is something that is in the ear of the listener rather than the mouth of the speaker.” Like everything else in life, it’s all about choice. If I could choose which accent to use and when, and therefore how to impact my ability to communicate with others…Bingo! I’d be the first one to sign up!
The Accent Reduction Institute (ARI) is privileged to have a sister company, Menlo Innovations…“Menlo” for short. Menlo is a state-of-the-art software company inspired by the innovative approach of Thomas Edison’s invention factory. As you can imagine, working with the brightest (no pun intended!) software designers has not only helped ARI create accent reduction software for independent study, but also apply the natural learning process to American accent training…online.
Improving your American accent with computer based learning is no easy feat. And yet we’ve found that online learners can make the same rate of improvement as those who participate in onsite training. What’s the key to cracking the code? It doesn’t necessarily lie in using the computer to replace live training. Instead, the solution is to combine live instruction with computer based training, in tandem. Unlike the laws of nature, language evolved to meet a social need: to communicate in order to convey information and negotiate social relationships. Language is interactive; computerized learning tools need to be too.
So how do you get rapid and long-lasting results using computerized tools and modalities? The answer lies in methodology. For accent neutralization training to show hard and fast results, we don’t need to eliminate the live instructor. Au contraire.
For example, at ARI we leverage global, virtual classrooms to simulate what we call a ‘Brady Bunch’ scenario. Several people are logged on concurrently from all over the world…no disconnects between voice and vision, all simulating the classroom experience in real-time. The result? Fantastic pronunciation. Rather than looking at computers as a replacement for expert instructors, we can think of an American pronunciation program online as a kind of ‘force multiplier’. When students share virtual white-boards, screen shares and, more fundamentally, receive feedback from their instructor, we use computers as helpers rather than replacers.
For those who fear that computers need replace the teacher…rest easy. We have metrics to prove otherwise.
Fads and fashions come and go. What’s in vogue one day may be out the next. Hence the expression, “XXX is the old YYY.” For example, “the 70′s are the new 60′s” (for active seniors), “sushi is the new hotdog” (for cuisine), and “brown is the new black” (for fashion).
What if I want to reduce my accent? Definitely “listen and repeat” is passé. (For those of us who are former French students, does ‘ecouter and repeter’ sound hauntingly familiar?)
Twenty years ago, when I was learning French and desperately wanted to lose my accent, I learned the fundamental process for accurate pronunciation. I had my first phonology course and learned that making sounds that don’t exist in your native language is a process. And it’s one that requires a lot of focus and attention. The process involves becoming very aware of the position of your lips, tongue, teeth, jaw, etc. in relation to each other. For example, to make the ‘v’ sound, your top teeth should touch your lower lip. To make the ‘k’ sound, the mid-section of your tongue needs to touch the roof of your mouth. Of course we don’t bring together the two parts and then leave them there indefinitely; we quickly release them and move on to making the next sound in the word.
In order to help our students learn English pronunciation, our instructors demonstrate where one part of the mouth needs to make contact with another. Then our instructors hold the two parts together for three or four seconds. This is not to emphasize the sound. Rather, it’s to help our students become aware of what it FEELS like when, for example, the tongue touches the gum ridge (the ‘d’ sound) or the lips touch each other (the ‘p’ sound). Our instructors use this no-fail strategy in each and every one of our accent reduction courses. Being mindful of what it feels like to make a new sound is a key step in the language acquisition process.
Twenty-four years ago, as an American student participating in a Junior Year Abroad program in Paris, I was inundated with the phrase, “Quoi? Qu’est-ce que tu as dis?” That’s French for, “What? What did you say?” It was then and there that I understood, first-hand, the relationship between mastery of a language’s pronunciation patterns and oral proficiency in that language: they’re directly proportional.
Prior to landing at Charles de Gaulle airport, I’d been under the impression that my French was quite good – certainly more than passable. After all, I was a straight “A” French major and studying with a group of foreign language students from Middlebury College, one of the finest language schools in the country. Yet, once in Paris, it was the rare person who didn’t ask that I repeat myself or, worse, give me a blank stare. What seemed to be the problem? It was my accent. Without having had formal training in articulation techniques / pronunciation training, my French simply wasn’t going to be easily understood.
At the heart of the matter, it’s really quite irrelevant whether we’re talking about French, English, or any other spoken language. True fluency requires competency in several core areas, including:
And regardless of whether we call accent reduction training by any other name – accent modification, accent neutralization, or American accent training – at its foundation is a shared objective: to help non-native English speakers learn to pronounce English sounds and speech patterns that may not exist in their first language. In fact, the above industry buzz-words are somewhat misnomers. When being meticulously technical, I tend to think of this kind of training as “accent acquisition”, since learners are taught how to acquire a completely new pronunciation system.
Regardless of the merits and weaknesses of a particular nomenclature, the inability to convey one’s thoughts, feelings, and even professional expertise due to a difficult to understand speech pattern is terribly frustrating. It hurts our confidence and others miss out on important information or contributions. Having been on the ‘other side of the street’ – the Champs Elysees to be specific – my goal is to eliminate language barriers while, at the same time, helping people maintain their unique cultural identity. In my next blog, I’m going to speak about how to do just that.