Why Learning a New Accent Isn’t Always Lemon Squeesy*!

We’re halfway into the 2012 Summer Olympics and the U.S. athletes have certainly done America proud. Take Michael Phelps, honoring the U.S. with his 18th gold medal, Gabby Douglas standing proud and bemedaled on the award stand, and 17-year-old boxer Claressa Shields beaming with golden grace.

But let’s have a look at one skill the U.S. athletes have yet to master…the Cockney accent. In an attempt to pay homage to their London hosts, several Olympians displayed their affection with a resolute, yet miserably hopeless, attempt to adopt their hosts’ native accent. If you want to laugh along with Team USA, check out their admirable, albeit unsuccessful, attempts. As much as I’m rooting for soccer player Heather O’Reilly, a gold in Cockney Accent certainly isn’t in the making.

In the athlete’s defense, the phrases chosen for the task are hardly “textbook”. They’re a wonderful slice of Cockney idioms, phrases that typically rhyme with the word the person wants to say; for example, ‘telephone’ becomes the phrase ‘dog and bone.’  The athletes, then, have to contend with a double whammy: getting their tongues around Cockney vowels and consonants, and their heads around the meaning of the phrases. The following idiom, and one that stumped Olympian after Olympian, makes the case: “Would you like some John Cleese with your uncle Fred, or just a little bit of talk and mutter?” actually means, “Would you like some cheese with your bread or just a bit of butter?”

Like accent learners of any language, the 2012 Olympians’ attempts demonstrate the difficulty of trying to acquire a new accent simply by using a “repeat after me” methodology. It doesn’t work, and especially not for adult learners. Given the neural wiring of our brains, adults need specific instructions. We need to be taught where to place our tongue, teeth, jaw, and lips to pronounce new sounds with which we may not be familiar. We need to be shown what it looks like and feels like…in effect, to “see” and “feel” a sound. Can it be done? Absolutely!

There are thousands of non-native English speakers who have successfully completed American accent training…and each one of them deserves a medal!

*More examples of Cockney slang.

Echolalia: Everybody’s Doing It!

If you’ve never been to the website “Dr. Goodword” (goodword@lexiteria.com), I strongly recommend taking a look. I stumbled upon Dr. Goodword six years ago when I was looking for ways to help my son prepare for his SAT. Lo and behold, Dr. Goodword was it. Every morning he received a ‘word of the day’ – some uncommon jewel of the English language. The entry came replete with the word’s etymology, pronunciation, and examples of how it’s used today.

I continue to receive my daily dose from Dr. Goodword. It’s wonderful. …One entry (July 30) is too good to keep to myself and I just had to write about it! The word was Echolalia, and it’s profoundly important to anyone who’s trying to learn the American accent, or any speech pattern for that matter.

Echolalia is essential to one of the most critical stages of early language acquisition. Echolalia is the action of repeating the sounds and words spoken by our caregivers and, later on, by our teachers. For those of you who are parents, do you remember the days when your toddlers parroted your every syllable? While some of those early attempts were a little off the mark, in time those first words began to sound just like ours. Dr. Goodword, by the way, seems to feel that the “lalia” part of echolalia is probably onomatopoeic…meaning it sounds like the word it represents. In this case, “lalia” refers to the la-la-la of speech. Echolalia, then, means to repeat that which is spoken.

Interestingly enough, at about the same time Dr. Goodward hit ‘send’ on his echolalia entry, an article by David Robinson ran in New Scientist magazine entitled, Kiki or Bouba: In Search of Language’s Missing Link. Robinson suggests that humankind probably invented our first words using an onomatopoeic process called “sound symbolism”. Robinson proposes that our ancestors invented new words by shaping their mouths to mimic the shape of the objects they were trying to name. To prove this, Robinson cited the work of Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard who ran what’s now called ‘The Kiki/Bouba Experiment’. Here, people were given the two words, ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’, and were asked to match them to two different objects. One of the objects was spiked, the other curved. Ninety-five percent of the people labeled the spiked object “kiki” and the curved one “bouba”. Interesting that our lips are horizontal (like the spikes of an object) when we say “kiki” and rounded (like a curved object) when we say “bouba”. To further support Robison’s theory, recent studies at the University of Maryland confirmed that the majority of children learn new words better if they are sound symbolic.

This is great news for our accent reduction specialists at ARI. We’ve known for quite some time that mimicry plays a key role in learning new pronunciation patterns. What’s exciting is the treasure trove of new data that continues to support ARI‘s methodology for teaching and learning the American accent. Core to the Ravin Method® is the idea that visual cues are critical when it comes to learning pronunciation. Our brains are hard-wired to mimic not just sounds, but the shapes that our tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw make when producing each sound of any given language. But beyond methodology, I love the way current research keeps going back to the basics: we all learn language the same way. We all can make every sound in the human family of languages. Whatever accent we bring to the table, humankind follows the basic patterns of communication. And isn’t that what language is all about?

How Can I Speak with an American Accent? Seeing is Believing

Many of us have heard that when a person, sadly, loses their vision, their hearing gets better. Sometimes their hearing gets extraordinarily better. Recently I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed a similar phenomenon, albeit with a twist. In this case, a woman who lost her hearing used her vision…to bring back her hearing. That’s phenomenal-in the true sense of the word!

There’s abundant research confirming that people can use areas of the brain designed for specific tasks in radically different ways. The woman who became deaf, for example, used lip reading to associate the shapes of the speaker’s mouth with sounds she once clearly heard. Over time, she could ‘hear’ when reading lips. When she saw a person put the tip of their tongue between their teeth, for example, she literally ‘heard’ a “th” sound. Her mind didn’t know the difference. Her doctor explained,

“…she was so adept at lip-reading that it was easy to forget she was deaf. Once, without thinking, I turned away from her as I was speaking. “I can no longer hear you,” she said sharply.

“You mean you can no longer see me,” I said.

“You may call it seeing,” she answered, “but I experience it as hearing.”

Lip-reading, seeing mouth movements, was immediately transformed for this patient into “hearing” the sounds of speech in her mind. Her brain was converting one mode of sensation to another.

This neural phenomenon also relates to the way we learn accurate pronunciation. While people sometimes tell me, “It’s impossible to reduce my accent”, it’s actually more than possible…it happens every day. But I understand their frustration.

For years these individuals, trying hard to learn the American accent, have been told, “Listen and repeat, listen and repeat.” However, it takes a whole lot more than a regiment of “listen and repeat”! It takes associating what things look like (the shape of the mouth) with what things sounds like (vowels and consonants). If you’d like to speak with an American accent, I recommend watching your listener’s mouth very carefully. Notice how they’re using their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw to make a specific English sound. This is the critical first step; now it’s time to listen and repeat. Try this for one week and see how fast you’ll be on your way to speaking with less frustration and more clarity, ease, and confidence.

Regional Accents: It’s All in Your Head

NPR recently published a fascinating article entitled Unfamiliar Accents Turn Off Humans And Songbirds. If you were to read this title, wouldn’t you assume that meant unfamiliar accents are a ‘turn off’ to people and birds? That’s what I assumed…and it led me to read further.

As we know, a ‘turn-off’ is an idiomatic expression that means to repulse or repel. This article, however, was certainly not talking about a supposedly abhorrent nature of unfamiliar accents. For as we know, depending on our experiences and perspectives, accents can either be a ‘turn-off’ or a ‘turn-on’. Think of a French accent and all kinds of ooh-la-la come to mind!

The article was highlighting a phenomenon that neurologists from Scotland recently discovered when examining brain activity in people exposed to unfamiliar accents. Their findings? Activity in the temporal region of the brain (the region that process voice discrimination) ‘turns off’, or at least greatly diminishes. But does this suggest that accents are a turn-off? Hardly! It simply notes that sounds which don’t occur in one’s native language are processed as an ‘accent’ and not given as much relevance.

In the world of cognitive linguistics, this phenomenon is known as NLNC (Native Language Neural Commitment). It means that as we identify the speech patterns of our native language, our brains create neural pathways that recognize, respond, and commit to the pronunciation patterns of our first language. Over time, other speech sounds are seen as “accented” speech.

Interestingly, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Duke University have discovered that songbirds, like people, have regional ‘accents’ and tend to respond to songs in a familiar accent. Swamp sparrows from Pennsylvania sound markedly different than swamp sparrows from New York. Does this mean that one bird’s accent is ‘right’ and the other is ‘wrong’? Of course not!

As far as people and our accents are concerned, heavy accents that create language barriers may prevent effective communication. But accents that don’t impede communication are an important part of our identity. If, as seems to be the case, birds of a feather sing together….it might do us some good to remember we need sopranos, tenors and everything in between to create perfect harmony.

Pronunciation Training: The Beginning

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.

About “Accent Reduction” Training

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:

  • grammar
  • vocabulary
  • reading
  • writing
  • pronunciation

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.