Since I work with many people in technical areas like software development and engineering, I have learned to communicate information about speech and language in terms that are familiar to them. The agile methodology is a helpful way to think about how people make progress with changing their speech.
Changing speech isn't a series of isolated tasks to be completed before moving on to the next one.
It's about adding new concepts gradually and constantly checking on how well they are being integrated before moving on to the next one and making adjustments as necessary.
This kind of flexibility is possible with private coaching, not with classroom teaching. You make progress at your own pace, spend longer on one speech feature than another, and receive continuous feedback so you know how you're progressing.
Thinking in terms of cycles is very effective. The concepts I've added to the graph below are in most people's Top 5 Goals: Intonation, Syllables, Schwa, Sound Processes, Sound-Spelling Relationships.
I have gained so much from the people I've worked with. I have learned about different methods of communicating while I was teaching communication skills. As long as you're open to new ideas and methods, you're sure to make progress in the direction you choose.
You will notice how often people say "yuh" after you read this blog today.
How do I know you'll notice this? It's called the "Frequency Illusion" or the "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" which is really a "confirmation bias." Once you pay attention to this thing in your environment, you'll start noticing it everywhere. I count on this as part of my instruction for helping people make changes in their speech and you can, too. You have to feel comfortable to try something that's new to you and if you notice that that's how everyone else is really speaking and they won't notice if you speak that way, you should feel more confident to try it.
For people who are really looking for ways to change how they sound, for any reason, the first thing they have to practice is paying attention.
Attending to speech means not just noticing what was said and understanding the meaning, but also noticing how it was said. This is hard to do if someone is still learning the new language and is translating in their head. It takes a high level of proficiency to be able to notice these two things at once. So try it in situations when the meaning isn't so important for you to remember. Try it in situations when you can anticipate what will be said, for example:
When people learn a new language, they learn the "proper" way which is often very different than the reality. The proper way is always understood, but it stands out as different to native speakers of the language who make short-cuts and changes. These short-cuts don't change the meaning, so a new language listener interprets these in the way he learned them, in the "proper" way.
For example (stressed words are in bold), say these sentences aloud:
The proper way sounds like it looks, "How are you?"
The actual way sounds different than it looks, "How are yuh?"
Looks like, "See you later"
Sounds like, "See yuh lader" or just, "See yuh"
Looks like, "What do you want?"
Sounds like, "Whad duh yuh want?"
"You" will change to sound like "yuh" when it's not being stressed (emphasized) because it's not the most important word in the sentence. If you say, "See you" instead of "See yuh" the meaning is understood, but it doesn't sound like the speech of the average native speaker of American English so it catches people's attention as different and could even sound like you're saying, "I see you" which is strange in that context.
For the rest of the day, I want you to pay attention to not just understanding what people mean, but also how they really said it. Then, try it. Imitate what you heard and use it the next time you're in the same situation. Nobody will notice because it will just sound natural, but you'll know your little experiment worked. It doesn't have to be just the "yuh" sound, it could be anything you want to pay attention to.
Today, I want you to:
Here's a good article about the origins of the names for the Frequency Illusion:
You will see Baader-Meinhof everywhere soon
Someone asked me if I had any tips for listening to someone who speaks with a strong accent. Sure I do!
First, everyone has an accent, everyone speaks with an accent, but nobody thinks they do.
Second, it doesn't matter which language you speak or what kind of accent you are listening to, this tip can be applied.
I listen to people who speak English with the accents from their native languages everyday. There are many sound differences and substitutions being made by speakers who have a strong influence of one language upon another and after a while, you will begin to notice and understand their patterns. This takes some time and patience, so I recommend not trying to understand every single word. Instead, zoom out in scope and listen for overall meaning. This will at least help you get the topic and have a chance at participating in the conversation even if that means being able to ask better questions about what they just said.
It doesn't matter which language is influencing the accent, the strategy is the same for every listener. 1) Relax - listen for meaningful words. 2) Observe - use as many contextual clues to help you as possible.
When you are listening to someone speak in their native language which is different than your own, unless they are making changes to their speech such as slowing down, articulating very carefully, or separating their words, they are going to speak naturally which means making short-cuts and making some parts of the speech difficult to hear. Everyone in every language makes short-cuts.
In American English, we shorten words with contractions ("can't"), leave off endings ("goin"), and make sound changes within words ("you" -> "yuh") and between words ("can't you" -> "canchuh"). We also leave out some syllables and whole words and use intonation to express the meaning which makes spoken English sound very different from what it looks like in written form. However, we emphasize the important words by using higher pitch and stretching the vowels, so they are easier to notice, hear, and understand. Other languages use change in tone/pitch on specific syllables, some use loudness, some use the addition of sounds or syllables, and some change the word order. Listen for patterns.
If you only caught a few meaningful words, you can use clues from context to help make sense of them. Catch a few nouns and verbs and you can start filling in the missing pieces. If you can tolerate a little bit of ambiguity, you will benefit from understanding the big idea (meaning) at the loss of some little details (sounds).
The link above is to a blog written by Walter Chen for Buffer.com. The information is familiar to me from my doctoral research on learning and memory, but he has presented it in a very simple way in his blog and I think it is helpful for everyone, and especially language learners and language improvers (you already know the language, you're just working on improving it).
I have always incorporated "looking for the positives" into teaching speaking skills. It's much easier for people to dwell on their mistakes and overlook the things they did well because the negatives are right in front of their faces but the positives are not. I help people practice how to "look for the absence of a negative as a positive."
Why? Because when you are understood, nobody tells you, "That was great, I understood everything you said." The listener just understands you and the conversation moves on, they reply to you, you get the correct food that you ordered, your professor understood your question, your supervisor understood your comment, your audience nods their heads in understanding, etc.
However, if someone doesn't understand you when you're speaking, they will tell you or give you nonverbal signals. You have to be mindful of the moment. If you weren't asked to repeat a word, nobody asked you "What?" or your listener didn't make a confused face while you were speaking, those are all positives in a place where negatives could have been.
Once you notice this, you should take a moment to appreciate and celebrate it, keep a record of it. Keeping a very simple list of a few "times I was understood today" keeps your mind focused on those positive moments instead of the negative. I can help you learn strategies for how to evaluate the times there was misunderstanding and make improvements for future interactions, but that should always be balanced by the successful interactions.
Noticing the positive moments creates a different perspective about yourself as a speaker and how you are perceived by others. It creates confidence that you will be understood and that creates motivation to seek more interactions and the more you interact and speak with people, the better speaker you become and a positive spiral is created. Spiral upwards by being mindful of the positive moments.
Why do some people choose "accent modification"? I used quotation marks because what I help people achieve is more than just clear pronunciation and that's what most people think "accent modification" is. It's more than that. It's really about connecting with people and the first way to do that is for you to feel comfortable approaching and speaking to them and for you to make them feel comfortable listening to you.
In general, people don't like to work hard at listening. If your speech is so different than the group you want to talk to, they won't have much patience to listen to you because it requires effort on their part. When you can speak in the same style and manner as the group you want to talk to, it will be easy for them and they'll want to hear more and learn more about you. By learning how to modify your speech so you can be understood more easily by different groups, you have more options of people to talk to, friends to meet, jobs to apply for, colleagues to work with.
Spoken English and written English are very different. When people try to speak English the same way they write it, speech can sound too correct and unnatural. To sound more natural, you can learn the rules of casual speech. Casual speech isn't slang. It's the style of speaking that native speakers use that involves short-cuts, connections, and sound changes. By learning these short-cuts, you can start with practice of common expressions and phrases that native speakers are used to and that could open the door to a new conversation, a new friend, or a new world.
For example- try saying these out loud:
What it looks like: "How is it going?"
What it sounds like: "howzitgowin?" ("how's it goin'?")
What it looks like: "What are you going to do tonight?"
What it sounds like: "whutchuh gonnuh do duhnite?"
Multiple changes happen from the written to spoken English, and I can teach you the rules, but more importantly, I can help you feel more comfortable speaking in this way so it feels and sounds natural for you and your listener (American English listener). People choose accent modification for many different reasons, but the goal isn't about sounding perfect, it's about connecting with people and sharing meaningful moments. Knowing how to open that door is the first step.
I'm often asked how long it takes to change speech. There's no answer for that. How long does it take to learn how to play the piano? It's a similar situation because it all depends on the individual person. Two of the most important variables are motivation and opportunity.
Motivation = Why do you want to learn this new skill?
First, Is it your choice or are you being forced to do it? I've had students in my accent modification classes who were required to take it and who didn't want to be there because they said it wouldn't work. They were right. I've met people who never took a class about pronunciation or accent because they thought they could do it all by themselves. They were right. Second, motivation can come from internal feelings of wanting to do something better and better or external situations that reward better performance. I've been inspired by the internal motivation of retired grandparents whom I've taught that had a strong desire to continue to learn, to improve, and challenge themselves although they had no immediate need to perform well in English. The external rewards are all around and vary from having the communication skills to meet people and make more friends to getting a dream job or promotion. If the motivation is there, it will find the opportunities. Lack of motivation finds excuses for why it can't be done.
Opportunity = Use it or lose it
Motivated people create opportunities to consistently practice and the effort they put into practice produces results. I could be describing changing speech, learning the piano, or losing weight, it's all the same. When you can find something you enjoy doing as your way of practice, it's easy to keep your motivation levels up. I'm often asked what is the best way to practice speaking English and I reply with a question about what do they enjoy doing. There are many ways to find other people who share the same interests, Meetup.com is a good one and volunteering is also a good option, try Volunteer Match.org to find organizations that you're interested in. If you don't want to be bound by location, there are online conversation sites as a way to practice English with other people such as Verbling.com and WeSpeke.com. Follow your interests and you will have something in common with the people you meet and you'll have great conversations not boring practice exercises.
There are two sides of learning: concept and application. I can teach you the concepts and you can prove to me that you understand them, but can you apply them to your speech to try speaking in a different way? This is where most people get stuck in making lasting changes to speech because they let fear creep in. Fear of how they will be perceived becomes stronger than the motivation or opportunity. My advice is to have fun experimenting, don't be afraid to make mistakes, and each attempt will lead you closer to better performance because you're practicing. If you learn the musical scales but never actually play a song on the piano, how can you expect to improve? Find your song. Find your voice.
What if there was a way to figure out what someone with speaking style 1 was doing differently with their speech than a speaking style 2 and you could analyze each of the distinct variables? Then those variables could be explained to the person so they could know what they are doing, what speakers of style 2 are doing, make comparisons so they can learn how to make changes to each of those variables, and then produce a speech that is easier for others to listen to and understand? That would be really cool. Wait. That's what I do! I teach people how to do what I do. I give people the same information I have, help them hear what I'm hearing and how to make those changes themselves, so they won't need me anymore. The world around them becomes their classroom when they can hear the accents the way I do.
It's not about losing an accent, or reducing or eliminating or any other get-rid-of-it kind of thing. It's really about understanding what's happening in both styles of speaking and making choices of how much you want to use of each one. It's about having options. Hanging out with good friends might not require many changes at all because they know you and understand you well. Speaking at a job interview may require many changes because they don't know you and you want your message to be clearly understood. It's your choice.
People have misconceptions about what accent modification does, but I have seen the joy, confidence, and achievement that it has brought the people I've worked with when they are successful at a job interview, or they get that promotion, or they give a great presentation. I know that I help people achieve their goals by giving them options of how to speak and be understood, and that is my goal for accent modification.
Dr. Christi Barb's Blog:
Thinking About Speaking