“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Accent reduction, also known as accent modification and accent neutralization, is the process of learning how to pronounce the sounds of any given language. In the United States, these terms refer almost exclusively to the accent patterns of Standard American English. “Accent reduction”, “accent modification” and “accent neutralization” are used interchangeably by both instructors and learners. At Accents International, we also use the term “accent acquisition”. We teach non-native English speakers how to acquire the sounds in English needed for ease and efficacy of oral communication.
Why Accent Modification is often neglected: A few urban myths
• Pronunciation isn’t necessary for effective communication. False. That’s like saying grammar and vocabulary are irrelevant. The sound of a word imparts its meaning. If one person says ‘depend’ and the other hears ‘defend’, the message sent doesn’t match the message received. This is a perfect definition of a misunderstanding.
• It’s impossible for adults to master a new accent. False. It’s not that adults can’t learn a new accent, it’s that adults learn differently than children. When adults receive step-by-step instruction, and in-the-moment feedback, they consistently acquire each and every sound of the accent in question. Just like children, however, consistent use (aka, practice) is key.
• If I have an accent, I need accent modification. False. Everyone has an accent. Another word for accent is ‘pronunciation’. Along with grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation is the third leg of the communication stool. Without any one of these three components, communication breaks down. The question is not whether someone has an accent, it’s whether the accent deviates from the standard to such a degree that a disconnect occurs between the speaker and listener. Should the latter be the case, accent modification is a tried and true solution.
The shared goal of accent reduction, accent modification, and accent neutralization is not that we all sound the same. It’s that we’re all understood.
“Cultural competencies” has become a high priority for people in talent and learning development. From Fortune 500 companies to NATO, it’s widely understood that embracing diverse, multicultural norms helps organizations excel.
Where does accent modification (aka, accent reduction) fit in? Is it something that helps people become more culturally competent, or is it something that devalues diversity? To answer this, let’s first take a look at what it means to be fluent in a language…any language.
In order for two people to converse with one another, there needs to be a mutual understanding of what words mean (aka, vocabulary), how words are used (grammar), and how words are spoken (pronunciation). Vocabulary. Grammar. Pronunciation. None of these are intrinsically right or wrong. They’re simply sets of shared meaning between two or more speakers. Having a common basis of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation ensures that everyone who speaks is heard.
Accent reduction is a process where individuals learn how to pronounce the sounds of a language that do not exist in their first language. It enables people to express their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and professional expertise so that the speaker and listener can readily understand one another. It lets them meet a shared objective. When this happens, consulting with clients, leading teams, and collaborating with colleagues happen with greater ease and impact. People do not need to sound the same. On the contrary, this would diminish the rich cultural diversity of our global workforce. But we all need to be heard and easily understood.
With the completion of any given Accents International training program, participants still have an accent. What they don’t have is the experience of being frequently asked to repeat themselves; or worse, dismissed because their listeners aren’t able to understand their message. By acquiring a solid foundation in English pronunciation, non-native English speakers become culturally competent while maintaining their unique cultural identities.
For those of us who work closely with Talent Managers and Directors of Learning and Development, we need little convincing of the business case for communication training. It makes perfect sense that effective communication is directly proportional to innovation and “mind-share”. In other words, the better we communicate the greater the productivity. And innovation, mind-share, and productivity are the signatures, let’s even call them trademarks, of a free market economy.
While not exclusive to the U.S., Americans can take pride in the “free movement of labor” aspect of its workforce. People are free to move up the ladder not because of social class or familial ties, but because of the unique skill set they bring to an organization and its teams. Talent Managers, Diversity Officers, HR specialists, and Learning and Development folks can especially take pride in their role of ensuring the multicultural talent of our diverse workforce has a level playing field.
Why? Because they’re the ones that promote effective communication programs. These give key talent opportunities to share their expertise with ease and confidence, to get buy-in to new ideas, and to lead others in more effective directions. When this happens, key talent can position and reposition themselves where they, and their organizations, can best maximize their contributions. And even better, what happens when our contributions are noted and valued? We move away from thinking about what’s best for me toward thinking about what’s best for the organization. Everybody wins.
This blog post isn’t an attempt to validate the views of economist Adam Smith or his famous, “The Wealth of Nations”. It’s to recognize the hard, and integral, work that people in charge of communication training bring to their organizations. With specific regard to accent modification, they know that behind every, “What? What did you say?” is an unspoken message conveyed between the listener and his/her speaker. Linguists call this ‘the meta-message’. The meta-message has to do with more than just the meaning of words. It has to do with an implicit, though often unintended, statement about the relationship between the two people speaking. Some people think of this as ‘the message behind the message’. With the example, “What? What did you say?”, the meta-message is clear: You, Mr./Ms. speaker, we have a problem because I can’t understand you.
Accent modification is a relatively new kind of professional development training. At the start of the last decade, there were only a handful of us who left academia to bring it to the private sector. During the early years, the corporate leadership who brought us in were downright brave. They had to defend their budget expenditures on a training program that hadn’t yet amassed the number of participants needed to validate, in any meaningful way, an ROI. (We believe the number needs to be above 1,000 participants who’ve either advanced their careers or had a noticeable impact on their organizations.) It was risky, but corporate leadership took a chance on accent modification; they took a chance on us.
I’d like to make a simple statement to the leadership at corporations, universities, and government agencies who betted on us. I hope both the message and the meta-message are one in the same:
“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.
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.
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.
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.
I heard a delightful interview on NPR last week with Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herse, founders of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL). Deck and Herse explained that typos are often caused by the discrepancies between the way English words are spelled and the way they’re pronounced. Any student of American accent training can surely sympathize, if not from the spelling side of the equation, than from the pronunciation side.
Members of the TEAL team recognize that, unfortunately, a solid 14% of English words are not spelled phonetically. Yikes! How can a student of English pronunciation training possibly contend with this? Thankfully, the situation is less dire than it may seem.
Part of the Accent Reduction Institute’s methodology is to address this situation head on. Contrary to what we may think, non-phonetic spelling patterns often correspond to “mini” pronunciation rules. And there are many! Once we identify these rules, pronunciation becomes a far less daunting task.
For example, let’s take the letter ‘t’. It can be pronounced in the following ways: “t” (as in time, two, and test); “d” (as in party, sorted, and Carter); “sh” (as in fraction, nation, and solution); “ch” (as in nature, future and fracture), and the list goes on. It’s fascinating (if you’re an English aficionado like I am) to recognize that these different pronunciations consistently conform to hard-and-fast spelling rules. While I won’t bore you with the entire canon of English spelling-pronunciation law, I’ll share just one: When the letter ‘t’ is between an ‘r’ and a vowel, as in the word “mortar”, the ‘t’ is pronounced like a ‘d’. This is just one of many examples where seemingly non-phonetic spelling patterns are actually key pronunciation rules. With a little instruction, pronunciation patterns become easy as pie.
The process of learning pronunciation rules reminds me of the last time I bought a car. When I finally decided on a Ford Escape, suddenly parking lots and highways were full of them…it appeared they were everywhere! The same goes for pronunciation. Once you realize that the letter ‘t’ between two vowels is pronounced like a ‘d’ (as in the word “water”) you’ll notice this mini-rule popping up in every other sentence. Soon you’ll find yourself saying “liter” like “leader” and “atom” like “Adam”. English pronunciation doesn’t need to be as daunting as it first appears. To quote Shakespeare, one of our great English masters, “There really is a method to the madness!”
Many of us have spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to learn a second language. Maybe it was to fulfill a language requirement, maybe it was in preparation for a relocation, maybe it was simply to make a vacation that much more fun. Somewhere on the path to fluency I would wager that most of us stopped and wondered, “Is it really worth it? This takes so much time. And it’s hard. Maybe I can just get by with a dictionary.”
The US Department of Defense seems to think it’s very worth it. In fact, sizable amounts of training budgets are now allocated to teaching our servicemen and women deploying to Afghanistan the languages of the region: Dari and Pashto. Of course there are strategic advantages to speaking the language of the populace. Imagine all the unpleasant scenarios that can be avoided by being conversant with local residents. But there are other reasons as well. Key military figures, from General Petraeus to General Mattis, see this as a key piece of counterinsurgency strategy, a necessary requisite for creating a collaborative relationship with the Afghan people.
In order to answer this, I turned to idioms. Idiomatic phrases tend to give that added ‘umph’ to literal meanings. They get at the underlying feeling of what’s being said. With that in mind, look
at the following examples and determine which is the more powerful phrase, (A) or (B):
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.