Author: Ela Britchkow, Speech and Language Pathologist, Accent Reduction Specialist
They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
No matter how old you are it is absolutely possible to both reduce your accent and improve your English pronunciation. Changing the way that you pronounce English words is similar to learning a new musical instrument. It takes a lot of practice, and being older makes it more likely you will need to practice more. Remember when you first learned to drive a car?
You first had to learn all the rules and concentrate on every move you made. After a while, driving became more natural and you automatically did what was required. It is the same with learning new speech skills like accent reduction.
If you start to learn a new language before puberty or around the age of 12 it is a lot easier. There are however exceptions. A study (journals.cambridge.org) of secondary language pronunciation found that some learners who started as adults scored as well as native speakers. Your best goal is to focus on speaking English clearly with excellent intelligibility. Beware of accent reduction companies that falsely claim that buying their product will allow you to sound just like an American in a very short time. Like any other change from how you are accustomed to doing something, accent modification is no different, perseverance; practice and excellent instruction produce the best results.
Speaking from my own experiences when younger, people were always asking me what kind of accent I had. Initially I would go into my story that I’m originally from Israel where I spoke Hebrew, and then my family moved to Belgium where I spoke French and then we moved to Dover New Jersey where I learned English. Actually I wasn’t certain that this answer really satisfied anyone. I did find their attention about how I was speaking particularly unpleasant.
They were reminding me that my speech was different in some way and I felt annoyed and unsettled afterwards. Eventually, I became so tired of repeating where I came from and just said that “I’m from New Jersey.” Their usual response was, “Oh Yea, I thought I heard something different.” Finally I made a decision to modify my accent (actually I was pressured by my clinical supervisor while training to be a speech and language pathologist) and learned to competently speak Standard American English.
Afterward, I noticed that people stopped asking me where I was from. More importantly, they focused more on what I was saying rather than how I was saying it. When clients come to me wanting help with their reducing their accents, I am better able to understand their concerns and feelings. I went through this experience and training myself. Accent reduction is worth the effort. Clear communication is crucial not only in the business world, but educationally and socially as well.
Some useful tips: When you add new words to your vocabulary, try spacing them in-between words you’re already familiar with so they’ll stand out—your brain will latch onto them more easily. Practice the sounds that you need in words, phrases and sentences. Expand both your English vocabulary and understanding of idiomatic expressions.
Studies have proven that spaced repetition helps to strengthen the connection so that we can recall information faster and more accurately. So it is better to practice in small intervals of time 15-30-60 minutes at a time a few times a day than for many hours straight. Studying in small chunks everyday combines spaced repetition with the best use of the brain’s temporary storage. It is also very important to get the required amount of sleep in order to best retain new information and memories into our brain’s long term storage.
Pronouncing English words like a native speaker means training your brain and training your mouth muscles. You need to move your lips, tongue jaws, to move in a different way in order to produce the sounds needed for clear speech. Practice accustoms your muscles to remember how to move in order to produce required sounds .
This is called muscle memory.
Some people have a talent for learning languages and are able to imitate what they hear easily. However if you are not especially talented in imitating the way someone speaks, you can make up for it with persistence, recording your voice and comparing it with the proper pronunciation.
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By Ela Britchkow, Speech and Language Pathologist
©2017 Ela Britchkow