Is English your second language and you have trouble with your accent? Do native English speakers ask you to repeat what you said because they didn’t understand you completely? Maybe you need to practice accent reduction – also known as accent neutralization.
Everyone speaks with an accent – native speakers as well. I think accents add colour and flavor to a person’s voice. It isn’t necessary to speak like a BBC newsreader – but it is important to be understood.
Learning English as a second language (ESL) is challenging – so people tell me. I grew up in Australia – a country that has English as its national language. When I was young I didn’t think I had an Australian accent – I was just speaking English. I was aware of English, European and American accents in films and television programs. I didn’t think I had an accent!
So how can you soften your accent? Read on for some tips as well as watch a video recording of me presenting this information.
You may have heard the term Accent Neutralisation or Accent Modification. These terms describe coaching to modify the way you speak to be better understood. You know you need this sort of training when people ask you to slow down or to repeat yourself in order to be understood. I would argue that some native English speakers need voice training so they can be understood clearly.
But you don’t need to learn a “neutral accent” – your priority is to develop your speaking skills to a level where your communication is understandable. You can still keep your own accent – it is part of your identity.
The benefits of a clear voice
If your pronunciation of English is unclear it is going to hold you back from achieving the things you want in your personal and professional life. Once you have an accent that is easily understand you will have positive interactions with others, communicate clearly, and be confident.
So What is Accent Modification?
It is a method for changing the way you speak. It involves learning and practicing the way English is pronounced – vowels, consonants and combination of letters. Other speech patterns that affect accent are the how individual syllables are stressed , and the use of rhythm and intonations.
When a non-native speaker learns English he or she tends to pronounce words using speech patterns from the native languages. Some sounds in English are very difficult – for example Japanese does not have separate sounds for L or R – instead there is a syllable which sounds halfway between L and R. This is why Japanese people have a hard time saying things like “I am rucky to eat flied lice”.
Much of the charm and stereotypical humour of some accents is when a speaker mixes the accent and speaking style of the native language with English. I used to watch a TV program called Hogan’s Heroes which was set in World War 2 Germany. The American actors would put on German and Russian actors but emphasise characteristics of that language. For example one of the characters is Marya (played by an American actress Nita Talbot) who would flirt with the American prisoner Hogan and say “Hogan, Daarrrrrling”.
Accent Reduction is a skill that requires practice and feedback from a native speaker. There are online courses available such as Starpronunciation which uses video so you can listen, observe and repeat various sounds and words.
So what do you need to practice? Earlier I said how accent reduction focuses on pronunciation (vowels, consonants, syllables), stress, rhythm and intonation.
Pronunciation. The difficulties you will experience in English are going to depend on your native language. A way to get started is to read some text aloud, and get a native speaker to assess your pronunciation. Let’s say you were preparing a speech – write the speech out then give the text to a native speaker
I am a member of a Toastmasters club in Sydney and have helped speakers with their pronunciation. Some of the countries are China, Japan, Korea, Iran, Colombia and Brazil. Each country has unique challenges in mastering English.
It is important to know the spelling of words then practice each syllable. For example, the word Toastmasters. I heard a Chinese person saying Toastermasters – maybe there was confusion with Toaster for cooking bread.
I have noticed common patterns of mispronunciation. For example people from Singapore and Malaysia say “th” sound as “tr” so instead of saying “three” they will say “tree”.
Speak slowly and use pauses.
Native English speakers can usually understand strong accents but it takes time to absorb what you say. This is why it is important to speak slowly and to use pauses. I noticed that Indians tend to speak quickly Say in Indian “I am very excited” – yet the accent can be understood if spoken slowly. I have noticed that Singaporeans tend to speak very quickly. Find an example of CelesTv. Be aware of your speaking rate and slow down!
Words of more than one syllable are usually pronounced with the emphasis on the first part of the word. Consider the word “menu”. I used to work in telephone support and was once talking to a customer in Malaysia. He was talking about a “menu” I didn’t understand until I realized he meant menu.
Listen and repeat
A good practice technique is to watch television programs such as news where you can listen and repeat some of what you have heard. Try and match the rhythm and tone of the language as if you were learning to sing. Record yourself speaking then play back and listen carefully to your pronunciation.
Build your own list of challenging words especially words you use in the workplace. Ask someone to help you by alerting you to words you are mispronouncing. Once you have asked someone to help, they won’t feel reluctant to help you, especially once they know you are keen to improve your pronunciations. Get into the habit of using a dictionary and understand the phonetic spelling of words. Some online dictionaries allow you to play the sound of the word. This can be of some help.
Practice reading out loud
Read newspaper or magazine articles out loud. Pretend to be a newsreader or radio announcer.
Your goal is to learn the necessary vocal skills to speak clearly and be understand. You don’t have to eliminate your accent or learn standard American or British English. Your accent is part of you and what makes you unique – so there is no need to eliminate the accent.
Like any skill, reducing your accent takes regular practice and determination. You can achieve it !
More of my blog articles:
Training in accent reduction:
Accent Reduction Tips
What is a Neutral accent?
I made this recording for the Coursera Introduction to Public Speaking course.