Frequently Asked Questions About Pronunciation Training/Accent Modification

Many nonnative English speakers have common questions about what it means to “modify”  or "reduce" an accent and how to successfully go about the process. Here are some FAQs and our perspective on these inquiries: 1. What is accent modification?

Accent modification (accent reduction, accent neutralization, pronunciation training, etc.) is a systematic process of identifying and adjusting the sound production and intonation patterns of non-native speakers so they can assume a  more mainstream, North American style of speaking.

2. What are the goals and objectives of this training?

In most situations, the goal is for the individual to become a more effective, understandable, and confident speaker. The objective is not to necessarily take away an accent, rather it is to add a more neutral style of speaking, that can be turned on or off as the situation and personal need dictates.

3. Who can benefit from this type of training?

Individuals from all professional levels and all language backgrounds who are not clearly understood and confident in various personal and professional speaking situations would benefit from this training.

4. Why does it seem so hard to modify an accent?

Many people try to address this themselves and find it extremely difficult because they try to let spelling guide their pronunciation. Unfortunately, English spelling is very un-phonetic, and many words are not spelled the way they sound. Think of: thought, through, thorough, laugh, beard, bird, heard, word, sword, listen, whistle, etc. Targeted training helps you break through the spelling barriers and approach your pronunciation practice in a more systematic way.

5. How long does it take to see results?

This depends on a number of factors, including how long English has been spoken, how many daily opportunities someone has to use their English, the perceived strength of the accent, the presence of other communication challenges such as grammar, and how much time is devoted to training and independent practice. Although one may be motivated  to change speech patterns to minimize embarrassment, one's personal identify is deeply associate with speech, and may be hard to let go.

Typically, speech can sound more understandable between one and three months, but results vary greatly from one person to another. As you may have noticed, young children can modify an accent much faster.

6. What makes someone have an accent?

An individual's pronunciation of English is influenced by the habitual lip and tongue movements of the first language, in addition to other factors, such as the sound repertoire and intonation patterns of their native language. Exercises to relax the oral musculature and alter tongue positioning can help the individual produce vowels and consonants with a neutral accent.

7. What is the best way to practice what is taught in class/sessions?

It is best to practice several times per day for brief 15-20 minute sessions using your training materials which may consist of workbooks, audio CDs, CD-ROMS, online platforms, or other sources. If possible,  find a practice partner, such as a friend, spouse, or co-worker. Video or audio recording your practice helps with self-monitoring and self-correction.

8. What results can I expect?

Trainers use different measures to assess before-after progress. In addition to quantitative measures, most individuals report that they are taken more seriously, have increased self-confidence, an enhanced professional image, increased work productivity, improved interpersonal relationships, and professional advancement opportunities. They also say that they have an increased awareness of troublesome sounds and they no longer have to repeat themselves.

Contact us at info@eslrules.com for additional guidance.

5 Easy Conversation Tips

Many non-native English speakers agonize when they are invited to socialize after work with colleagues, participate in a networking event, or even attend a cocktail party. The source of their anxiety is not knowing how to act or what to say, concerns about their foreign accent and overall, how to make small talk and establish rapport with others.  The following are some tips for making this situations less stressful, and actually enjoyable.  1.  Be Prepared - Avoid asking questions that result in a "yes" or "no" response. Think about some business or social topics ahead of time and generate some open-ended questions, e.g., "Tell me about your position." vs. "Do you work at....."

  • Work - Who has been influential person in your career?
  • Personal - What is an amazing place you have visited?
  • Family - What has been rewarding about raising your family?
  • Cultural - How do you typically celebrate ________ in your native country?

Avoid potentially sensitive topics, such as politics, religion, salaries or other personal inquiries.

2.  Be First - Look for an approachable (friendly, smiling) person, greet them by introducing yourself, and start up a conversation by making a comment or asking a question. (See examples above).

3.  Use Free Information - Respond to a comment your conversational partner says.

A:  "I like going to the ocean on my summer vacations."

B:  "What is it about the ocean that you most enjoy? "

Avoid interrogating  your conversational partner or jumping from one topic to another. Try to keep the conversation going with a thread of related Q & A. Then, transition logically to the next subject when the conversation has run its obvious course. Imagine that you are in a tennis match and you are trying to keep the ball in play.

4.  Keep the Conversation Going

  • Be interested
  • Be inquisitive
  • Be observant
  • Be attentive and "in the moment" (no texting, etc.)
  • Use verbal and non-verbal cues (lean forward, open posture, good eye contact)

5.  End Conversations on a Positive Note - Be sincere and thank your conversational partner for their time, sharing their story, etc. Also, be tactful when ending the conversation by providing a reason for your departure and make future plans if appropriate, e.g., “Would you like to meet for coffee next week?”

There are many excellent books on the subject of conversational skills and small talk. Ask your trainer for recommendations.

5 Tips for Speaking Concisely

For many nonnative English speakers, it is difficult to speak concisely and to find the right words to clearly express often complex, technical ideas.  Foreign accents add to the challenge of effective communication. Here are our 5 top tips for making it a little easier:

  1. Expand your general vocabulary: Often, our clients’ understanding and use of technical terminology is fine, but it is difficult to find the right words to explain broad concepts, and participate in discussions. There are many vocabulary development workbooks and software programs that are available for self-study. Ask your trainer for recommendations.
  2. Use notes: This can be jotted down notes on your pad or the notes section of PowerPoint slides for formal presentations.  Write down what you want to say ahead of time, and color code key points so that you can remind yourself with a quick glance. You may even want to write down your transition statements when using PowerPoints.
  3. Utilize pauses:  The important information stands out when we incorporate pauses, rather than inserting word fillers, such as "uh," "um," "ok", "you know," etc. Sometimes just giving yourself a few seconds of  “thinking time” can help you organize your ideas. This is even true at the start of a presentation; take a few deep breaths, quiet your mind, look at your audience, and then begin speaking.
  4. Time yourself and edit your remarks: Practice saying a portion of what you need to say out loud. Time yourself and then see if you can “tighten” the message by eliminating extraneous comments. Reduce your time and see if you can say it more coherently and concisely.
  5. Plan ahead: Even if you are speaking without a lot of advance preparation time, try our acronym, TIES to organize your ideas.

T=  State the topic I Introduce your information  E= Give some examples SSummarize your thoughts

Speaking clearly and concisely is a critical workplace skill. The more you practice, the more adept you will become.

Top Ten Tips for Effective Pronunciation and Speech

Many speakers seeking accent modification/accent reduction training look for strategies to improve their pronunciation. One-on-one or small group training with a communication skills professional is ideal. There are also many self-help training programs available. Unfortunately, this approach does not provide the essential feedback to learn if you are pronouncing the words correctly. Many software programs are wonderful tools, as well, but don't always have the ability to identify subtle stress and intonation patterns which is an essential feature to address in accent modification. Here are some tips to either get you started, supplement the training you might currently be taking, or brush up on your skills:

  1. Identify a speech role model: Find someone whose speech is pleasant to your ear. This can be a radio or TV personality, a family member, friend or colleague. Do you like the tone, rate of speech, resonant quality, phrasing? Try to emulate those desirable features in your own communication.
  2. Get a professional's opinion: It is difficult to change aspects of your speech if you don’t know what may be detracting from the effectiveness of your communication. Find a specialist who can help you identify areas that may need improvement. Make sure to check references!
  3. Video or audio-record yourself: This can be as low or high-tech as you please, but it is very helpful to hear and see how you may present yourself to others. Consider how you look (fidgeting with your hair, wringing your hands, pacing), how you sound (monotone, rapid speaking, nasal, whiny), and  how you speak (using professional language or too much slang, rambling or concise)?
  4. Solicit feedback from those you trust: If you feel as though your communication may be holding you back at work, ask your manager, co-workers, and others for honest feedback. Seek people who interact with you in a variety of settings such as on the phone, in meetings, during formal presentations, etc.
  5. Project your voice: Take deep abdominal breaths and speak as you exhale; do not waste any air.  Keep your mouth open and relaxed. Look in the direction you want your voice to go and imagine your breath stream floating along a string to your target (the person or object farthest away from you). Take replenishing breaths as needed so the end of your sentence sounds as loud and strong as the beginning. Stand up when speaking.
  6. Pronounce your sounds clearly: Make sure that your speech sounds are accurate and clear, especially at the ends of words. Finish the  words so that you say “thinking” vs. “thinkin',” and “biggest,” vs. “bigges-”. 
  7. Speak at a slightly lower rate: Slightly reduce your speaking rate by stretching out the vowels, and pausing where a comma or period would occur. Chunk information into manageable groupings, and then take a breath before continuing. Try to speak at the same rate as the person with whom you are speaking (assuming they are not racing themselves!)
  8. Use appropriate intonation: Try to speak with a natural, varied inflection pattern. Stress the last important word in a thought group. Stress the word by slightly raising your pitch, speaking slightly louder, and lengthening your vowels (by Joseph). Smile to infuse a little more energy and/or personality in your voice. 
  9. Practice wherever, whenever, and with whomever you can: Use every speaking situation as an opportunity to practice your best speech techniques. Listen and observe the reactions/responses to your speech from your mail carrier, doorman, barista, newspaper vendor, secretary, etc.
  10. Practice idiosyncratic stress rules when reading: Everywhere you look, you will see Proper Nouns (business cards, street signs); Compound Nouns (grocery store circulars); Numbers (appointment books), and other written references to pronunciation rules. Use every opportunity to read aloud practicing your newly learned techniques for proper stress and intonation. 

If you find these tips helpful, please feel free to visit www.eslrules.com  to learn about more effective speech and communication techniques, resources, and training.

Do You Speak American English?

"I have no problem with English. I have been speaking it since grammar school." How often have we heard this comment? Although many people speak “The Queens‘ English,” and have excellent grammar and vocabulary skills, there are some stylized differences between RP (Received Pronunciation) and North American English pronunciation. Understanding these differences can help bridge the communication gap with our friends across the pond.

How is American English pronunciation different from English learned abroad? Syllable stress - Patterns of North American English are often different from the stress patterns of British English. Just listen to the BBC to hear differing stress and intonation styles. Americans say EDucate, not eduCATE; TRANSlate, not transLATE; and iDENtify, not identiFY. These minor syllable stress variations can sound “different” if we are not accustomed to that stress pattern in our own speech.

Sentence Level Stress - In North American English, sentence-level stress is very critical when relaying information. If no word is stressed, monotone speech results; if an unimportant word is stressed, the rhythm or melody of the sentence is altered.

A word is stressed by saying it with louder volume, higher pitch, and a longer vowel sound. An increase in loudness alone will make the speaker sound angry or impatient. An inappropriate rising pitch at the end of the sentence will sound uncertain, tentative, or immature. In North American English, the last important content word is usually stressed. We put the primary stress on the first word in a compound word. In the UK, it is the exact opposite: while we tell our friends to enjoy their WEEKend, they will implore us to have a nice weekEND!

Vowels - The production of vowels often differs between mainstream North American English and RP, as they are spoken with different mouth tension and positions. Just like the regional dialects of the US, there are many variations in vowels throughout the UK. Traditional English was "rhotic," meaning the "R" is pronounced in words such as "park" and "another." In the 1800's, non-rhotic speech was used by the upper class and currently, non-rhotic speech is more prevalent. One can hear this influence in the New England and New York dialects, e.g. "anothuh"/another, "come ovuh he-ah"/come over here.

Consonants - The pronunciation of the "t" sound is noticeably different between North American speakers and those who learned English abroad. In American English, "t" is pronounced differently according to its location within the word. In particular, when the /t/ appears in or before an unstressed syllable, it sounds fast and like an imprecise /d/ and is called a flap /t/. For example, Italy, city, water, photograph, sit up. In contrast, the /t/ in all of its positions is precise and crisp in RP.

Figurative Language - Naturally, language/vocabulary differences abound between the two styles of English.  For example, in the United Kingdom a lorry means a truck; the tube is the subway system; a subway is a pedestrian underpass; and a roundabout is a traffic circle. A "hole in the wall" is an ATM in British English but a small out-of-the-way place in North America. If an American has been traveling for work, he/she might say, “I have been on the road a lot lately.”  Someone who speaks RP may say, “ I haven’t been at the station for a while.” Charming, yet confusing at the same time!

Spelling - Differences also exist between British and American English, e.g., flavour/flavor, learnt/learned, favourite/favorite, pyjamas/pajamas, and defence/defense, to name a few.

Of course, neither RP or North American English is more appropriate or correct. These are differences that should be acknowledged, respected, and appreciated. In fact, many people find accents charming and exotic!

Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker formed ESL RULES, LLC in 2006. Through this joint business venture they provide workshops and produce and distribute their unique training materials for accent modification and communication training. Their line of products address critical and frequently confused English grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules of speech and pronunciation for nonnative English speakers in the financial/business, scientific/medical, information technology, hospitality, and religious/spiritual settings. 

For more on the ESL RULES line of products, please visit www.eslrules.com

Tips for Telephone Interviews

Many of our accent and communication clients have asked for help preparing for telephone screening interviews. Here are some tips for making them as successful as possible: (1) Before the Interview

  • Focus on accountability: confirm the details of the call (date, time, who is initiating the call, etc.)
  • Research the company
  • Generate a short list of relevant questions

(2) During the Interview

  • Make sure you are calling from a quiet, private, environment
  • A landline phone may be preferable if you don't have excellent cell phone reception
  • Do not eat, drink, chew gum, etc.
  • Keep water nearby
  • Have paper and pen ready
  • Have your resume and/or short list of qualifications/skills that match the job description criteria
  • Answer the phone by identifying yourself: "Hello. This is ____________ speaking."
  • Smile when you are speaking. This will make your voice sound more energetic and lively
  • Speak slowly, clearly and loudly enough
  • Avoid saying "um" when thinking or translating your thoughts
  • Use your interviewer's title (Mr., Ms.) unless asked to use a first name
  • Don't interrupt when the interviewer is speaking; jot down questions if necessary
  • Provide short, succinct answers; brief pauses to organize thoughts are acceptable
  • At the end, ask when you can expect to hear from the company regarding the next step
  • Thank the interviewer

(3) After the Interview

  • Send a handwritten thank you note in a timely manner
  • Write down some of the interview questions and your answers, as well as any questions you would like to ask at the face-to-face interview

Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker formed ESL RULES, LLC in 2006. Through this joint business venture they provide workshops and produce and distribute their unique training materials for accent modification and communication training. Their line of products address critical and frequently confused English grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules of speech and pronunciation for nonnative English speakers in the financial/business, scientific/medical, information technology, hospitality, and religious/spiritual settings. 

For more on the ESL RULES line of products, please visit www.eslrules.com

Helping Clients Practice When They are On the Road

Recently, it seems like a majority of our accent modification clients are jet-setting around the world for a little time with family in far-a-way destinations, or to fulfill work obligations. They have been asking for suggestions as to how to practice during these hectic times when attendance at their accent modification classes is not possible and they do not have time to schedule distance training sessions.

Here are some practical tasks:

  • For clients who will be speaking Business English on their trips, they can audio/video record presentations or their end of telephone calls, and we can share/critique upon their return. They can also evaluate the recordings on their own to develop a self-awareness of their newly learned strategies.
  • If they are traveling in English-speaking countries, they can try to find the stress and intonation rules of North American English  on all written materials, including restaurant menus, hotel brochures, business cards, etc. When they practice reading aloud using  the correct pronunciation of proper nouns, compound nouns, acronyms, etc., they are learning to carry over these skills into daily situations.
  • We suggest that they take a copy of the RULES personal introductory script and tape it to a mirror so they can practice it numerous times during the day/evening.
  • They can review  the words from their personal pronunciation notebook and put 10 challenging words with the same  target sound on separate index cards. They rotate the cards every week, depending upon how long they are traveling.
  • If they have internet access, they can sign into the RULES BY THE SOUND online platform and continue the exercises they have worked on at home.

Of course, it is very difficult to maintain the same discipline for practice that they have while actively attending accent modification sessions at home.  However, practicing new speech habits  for several, brief  “mindful” periods of time during a trip, makes the transition back home less frustrating in the long run. This is particularly important if  they are  communicating in their native language for an extended period of time.

Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker formed ESL RULES, LLC in 2006. Through this joint business venture they provide workshops and produce and distribute their unique training materials for accent modification and communication training. Their line of products address critical and frequently confused English grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules of speech and pronunciation for nonnative English speakers in the financial/business, scientific/medical, information technology, hospitality, and religious/spiritual settings. 

For more on the ESL RULES line of products, please visit www.eslrules.com.

New Year’s Resolution: Take Control of Paperwork!

It’s that time of year again: If you’re like me, you’ve thrown out and/or donated bags and bags of unused and unwanted items accumulated over the past year. And that doesn’t include the piles of paperwork that we amass for our clients. As corporate trainers, we are not under the same legal obligations to hold onto reports as we are in other clinical settings. However, we still need to keep track of what if going on with our clients with regard to payments, attendance and other details.

I have found it helpful to use a simple checklist that I staple to the inside cover of each client’s folder, so that I can keep track of things and not trust my memory (overtaxed at this time of year in particular!)

The things I need to know are:

  1. Dates of training and time remaining in hours
  2. When the evaluation summary was sent or emailed to the client
  3. Materials disseminated to the client (as specific as possible)
  4. Payments received (check #, date, amount). This is particularly important for clients on an installment plan
  5. Sessions cancelled (with 24-hrs notice there are no consequences; without it I need a note that the session has been forfeited)
  6. Time/date of next session
  7. Comments related to performance, future training issues, follow-through with resources and/or referrals, etc.

Since we use the RULES program as our primary training vehicle, I’ve also found it handy to put a copy of the table of contents into the folder and simply check-off which units have been covered. Lynda and I have developed an organizer for using the information above and the RULES program.

Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker formed ESL RULES, LLC in 2006. Through this joint business venture they provide workshops and produce and distribute their unique training materials for accent modification and communication training. Their line of products address critical and frequently confused English grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules of speech and pronunciation for nonnative English speakers in the financial/business, scientific/medical, information technology, hospitality, and religious/spiritual settings. 

For more on the ESL RULES line of products, please visit www.eslrules.com

Pronunciation Practice by Watching and Listening to Videos

by Lynda Katz Wilner, M.S., ESL RULES Co-Founder  I came across a wonderful website for individuals who are looking to modify their foreign accent:

http://www.englishcentral.com/

English Central is for English language learners to practice their pronunciation. You have the opportunity to both listen to and watch a variety of speeches on many topics:  working, business, health, science, engineering, presentations, environment, technology, interviews, famous speeches, to name a few.

It's easy: Listen to the speech and watch the video simultaneously. As you listen, you can read along with the text. Finally, you can practice one sentence at a time and record yourself with a recorder that is on the platform.

Once you do all of the above, you will receive a score on your pronunciation.  You can also roll the cursor over specific words and hear the native speaker and your production and then see the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) transcription of both samples; red highlights will indicate where you sound different from the model. If desired, re-record until you are satisfied with your pronunciation.

Positives:

  • Excellent way to supplement your accent modification training with your instructor
  • Wonderful resource library of speeches for various topics
  • Great way to work on listening and pronunciation skills
  • Tool for vocabulary development particularly related to key topics
  • Learning tool for cross-cultural communication tips
  • Language proficiency levels can be set
  • Basic platform is free (you can upgrade to add on other features for a fee)

Negatives:

  • Some speakers don't demonstrate ideal voice quality or pitch
  • The platform doesn't rate your intonation patterns, an essential feature for understandability of speech
  • If you pause, you lose points, and pausing is an effective strategy to enhance communication
  • As a native speaker, I couldn’t always get a perfect score and it was difficult to see why I lost points

Overall, I recommend it to non-native English speakers who are striving to improve communication skills, modify or reduce their accent, and learn the American accent. It is an excellent way to support your other training materials.

Our RULES BY THE SOUND pronunciation platform is a very different way to practice pronunciation by reading sound-loaded stories.  Non-native speakers will achieve confidence when they can focus on a particular sound within the story. This would serve as an intermediary step for the student who has specific pronunciation concerns.

It's wonderful to see all of the pronunciation and accent modification materials that are available to the non-native English speaker!

Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker formed ESL RULES, LLC in 2006. Through this joint business venture they provide workshops and produce and distribute their unique training materials for accent modification and communication training. Their line of products address critical and frequently confused English grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules of speech and pronunciation for nonnative English speakers in the financial/business, scientific/medical, information technology, hospitality, and religious/spiritual settings. 

For more on the ESL RULES line of products, please visit www.eslrules.com.

Accountability for Accent and Communication Programs

by Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker, M.S., ESL RULES Co-Founder  Accountability is a big part of our work as accent modification consultants/trainers.

Why?

  • Money is invested into our accent and communication programs and services
  • Clients/Executives are granted time away from responsibilities to participate in training
  • Measurable, positive results are expected

Thus, as consultant/trainers, we give our utmost to help our clients achieve the desired goals: We evaluate strengths and weaknesses, observe, critique, educate, and motivate.

But we are only part of the equation.

The other part? Our clients have to practice or the expected positive results will not be achieved.  Getting in the way of that are the usual excuses: lack of time, work/family imbalance, lack of discipline, you name it.

How can we assure that all parties are satisfied at the end of communication skills training?

  1. Set clear, realistic goals from the beginning. Then, make sure everyone - client, trainer, managers- are all on the same page about what can be accomplished in the designated time frame.
  2. Sign agreements with the economic buyer stating that specific improvements cannot be guaranteed. Explain the variables that influence the outcome, such as strength of accent, related communication challenges, responsiveness to training, insight, commitment to training programs, etc.
  3. Maintain close contact with managers throughout the entire process: Provide initial, mid-term, and final documentation. Be sure to support each piece of documentation with audio/video records.
  4. Help the client develop a disciplined approach to independent study. A simple checklist will help clients be accountable for the time they should devote to practice. (We've attached the checklist that we use with our clients, as an example.) These documents can be shared with managers, should results fall short of expectations.

Accountability on all sides will ensure the best results!

Lynda Katz Wilner and Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker formed ESL RULES, LLC in 2006. Through this joint business venture they provide workshops and produce and distribute their unique training materials for accent modification and communication training. Their line of products address critical and frequently confused English grammatical, semantic, and syntactic rules of speech and pronunciation for nonnative English speakers in the financial/business, scientific/medical, information technology, hospitality, and religious/spiritual settings. 

For more on the ESL RULES line of products, please visit www.eslrules.com.