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.