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Why accents matter


Our partners from Collins sent a new collaboration to our blog! Enjoy! We love accents! We make our living helping people learn a variety of different accents, and we celebrate all the different accents that exist. We also know that accents are a big part of our identities and who we are as individuals, so we definitely aren’t interested in teaching everyone to sound the same. However, there are certain occasions where accents can cause problems for understanding, and those are the times when we believe it’s important to work on your accent.

One of those times is when an accent means that a speaker isn’t distinguishing between minimal pairs. This means that there are two words that only have one different sound, but have completely different meanings. For example: ‘live’ and ‘leave’. Speakers of many languages have issues differentiating between the long vowel ‘ee’ /iː/ and the short vowel ‘i’ /ɪ/. This could make it hard to tell the difference between the exclamations ‘I just can’t leave here!’, and ‘I just can’t live here!’. There’s a big difference in meaning, but only one very subtly different vowel sound.

For speakers of English at a more advanced level, accents can still cause problems, but in other ways. For example, someone who has lived their adult life in the UK, but grew up elsewhere speaking another language may have no problem with being understood, but may find that their tone or intention is frequently misunderstood. This can be because so much subtext and subtle emotional meaning in English is conveyed through intonation (the musicality of speech). In English, a falling tone usually conveys finality or certainty, so if (as a non-native speaker) you’re always using falling tones, due to the intonation patterns of your mother tongue, listeners may think that you don’t want to chat any more.

So changing your accent doesn’t mean losing who you are - in fact you can change your accent in ways that allow your true intentions to be understood more easily.

Problematic sounds for many non-native speakers

One of the most challenging sounds for non-native speakers of English is actually the most common sound in the English language! That sound is The Schwa. The schwa is a very subtle, quiet sound - you may barely have noticed it, but without it, you can never hope to capture the rhythm of English. Any written vowel can be replaced by the schwa if it’s in an unstressed syllable. Examples can be heard in words like allow, or official: rather than saying the strong form of the vowel, it should be pronounced with a quiet ‘uh’ sound.

For non-native speakers this sound can really challenging, because when you’re speaking in your second language you want to be as clear as possible in order to be understood. Using the schwa can feel like mumbling or like you’re not fully pronouncing a word. However, in reality all native speakers use the schwa - even the Queen! And by not using it, you are are much more likely to be misunderstood.

The schwa is key to showing what’s important within sentences. The vowels in small grammar words like ‘to’, ‘as’, ‘at’, ‘can’ ‘was’ etc frequently reduce to schwas, and not using them will make those words stand out too much, and confuse listeners about the overall meaning of what you’re trying to say - the individual words may be clear, but the meaning of the sentence gets lost if you don’t unstress the unimportant words. For example, in a sentence like ‘I was waiting for you’, if you don’t unstress the word ‘was’ by using a schwa, it ends up sounding stressed to native speakers, and changes the meaning of that sentence from something quite neutral to ‘I WAS waiting for you’ which could seem argumentative.

So when practising English pronunciation, learning what not to say, is just as important as learning what to say.

Tips on how to use this book in the classroom

Accents are muscular habits. As such, learning a new accent is like learning a gymnastic move, and any teacher should aim to balance the teaching need for muscular repetition with the learner’s need to feel they are making progress. Moving between the ‘simpler’ and more tangible chapters such as plosives (for example, ‘p’ and ‘t’), and more complex but still fundamental concepts and sounds such as the schwa and elision (omitting a written sound) will keep students interested. Here are our main tips for using this book as a classroom teaching aid:

- Approach pronunciation systematically and with repetition. Whatever rule you choose to look at you need to give students a solid sensory experience of pronouncing that sound correctly. It can be tempting to move on too quickly when it appears a group have mastered a sound. Complete the unit - words and practice sentences - fully, no matter what you are hearing.

- One rule per class alongside language coaching is plenty. This will allow for you to see results in each class and for learners to feel progress without being overwhelmed.

- You don’t need to approach chapters in order. All the units are self-contained and can be taught individually. For a whole term or year of work, the book is broadly laid out in an approachable order (at least this would be the order we would choose to teach).

- Using a variety of fresh texts and applying what is being learnt to relevant subject matter will give students a sense of achievement and help them to appreciate the usefulness of the work they are doing. When using new material, ensure you keep the focus narrow. For example, if you’ve been working on nasal sounds, pick out only the words in the text that contain that sound.

- If you yourself speak with a non-Southern English accent, feel free to use your accent as model. Geography is as good a reason as any to teach a different sound system. Be clear to your students that they are not learning RP and point out how your accent differs.

Happy teaching!

Where to start when softening your English accent

Changing an accent is not an overnight task and many people try and fail because they don’t know the best way to approach accent modification and become overwhelmed. The trouble is we talk all the time without even thinking about it, so when we try and think ‘how do I say that?’ we can’t answer.

The first thing to do is to understand how an accent is created. Accents are the muscular product of a lifetime of habits and geography. As soon as you began speaking as a baby you began to train your muscles and articulators (for example, your teeth and tongue) to move in a certain way. To change your accent you will need to undo years of unconscious habits. Here are our tips for success:

BE SYSTEMATIC Choose one sound and focus on that sound for a whole week. Even one you know well. Start by ensuring that you are making that sound correctly in a mirror and then make that sound all you focus on in daily life for a week. When you order a coffee or a meal say that sound perfectly.

BE DEDICATED Changing your accent requires a systematic and dedicated approach. Start by setting realistic goals. Your accent will not change in one day, or even one week. Think of accent softening the same as you would training in the gym. Results are earned.

BE CONSISTENT Practise daily. Just a few minutes of focussed work every day will have an impact.

BE KIND TO YOURSELF If accent modification were easy, no-one would ever need to work on it! You may feel your progress is fast one day and slow the next, but know that this is normal and don’t allow it to halt your accent journey!

Good luck!


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