Practice for Success
Accent reduction is fundamentally about acquiring new pronunciation patterns. This involves changing the muscle memory of the mouth so that new speech patterns become “second nature”. Results are most successful with a firm commitment to practice following accent reduction classes.
Build in an accountability measure, perhaps a daily practice tracker, and think about your long-term goals. Why is clear communication important to you? How does it impact your personal and professional relationships, your career aspirations, and ease in navigating your environment? Take an inventory of your communication strengths. Most of us can enumerate our pronunciation shortcomings; yet being aware of your pronunciation competencies will help you design a practice plan that is meaningful and facilitates progress on a consistent basis.
Phoneme Discrimination is more than Auditory
The learning process is not intuitive. For example, it’s essential to create an awareness of what each sound looks like. Are your lips in the shape of a box for ‘ah’ (as in “hot”) or an oval for ‘aw’ (as in “office”)? Is the tip of your tongue visible between your teeth for ‘th’? Practice in front of a mirror to verify lip, tongue, and teeth placement. Also pay attention to what the sound feels like. Can you feel your top teeth on your lower lip for ‘v’? Having many techniques for phoneme discrimination is critical for adult learners and will give you an increased ability to self-correct.
Think about Sound, not Spelling
English is not a phonetic language. In phonetic languages, letters are pronounced in only one way. In English, one letter can have several different sounds. For example, the letter ‘s’ can sound like ‘s’ (as in “some”), ‘z’ (as in “please”), ‘sh’ (as in “sugar”), and ‘zh’ (as in “vision”).
Additionally, one sound can be spelled in many ways. The sound ‘aw’, for example, has six different spelling patterns:
- ‘o’: “long”, “cost”, “office”
- ‘al’: “tall”, “almost”, “walk”
- ‘augh’: “taught”, “daughter”, “caught”
- ‘aw’: “awful”, “law”, “withdraw”
- ‘ough’: “bought”, “cough”, “thought”
- ‘au’: “author”, “cautious”, “cause”
Learn to associate specific articulation techniques with the sound…not the spelling!
When speaking aloud, focus on one sound per day. Set aside five minutes in the morning, in the afternoon, and again in the evening to specifically concentrate on words having that particular sound. This is “mindful practice”. The goal is to build an awareness of both the sound and how to produce it, consistently, in context. Reading aloud is another great way to build proficiency. Read for 10-15 minutes three times a week, underlining or highlighting your target sounds in the passage. Consider reading your work emails aloud, as they have terminology that is relevant and used on a regular basis. Mindful practice also means speaking at a rate that allows sufficient pausing between ideas. For a ready-made opportunity, use telephone calls as dedicated practice time.
The Bottom Line – Have a Plan of Action
Improved pronunciation isn’t arbitrary. And it isn’t the result of hours and hours of daily practice. Rather, clear and effective communication is the result of adherence to a practice plan that is thoughtful and intentional. Commitment and consistency yields carryover when speaking English!