Standard American pronunciation training
March 27, 2013 5:48 AM   Subscribe

Hello, I'm a French student preparing for English interviews and in my last mock session my interviewer talked about my accent that could put me at a disadvantage. I can't afford and don't have the time to see a speech therapist so I'm looking for books with audio tracks that are aimed at mastering the standard American accent. Do you know or know somebody that had had great results with a particular book? Thank you!
posted by lite to Education (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Samuel French puts out a line of accent tapes for actors, each for a specific American or English accent.
posted by musofire at 5:52 AM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't worry too much about hitting that standard American accent. I would try to get rid of the typical French pronunciation of english words. For this purpose, I would just watch a lot of english spoken movies; really listen well and repeat their words. Maybe someone here could advise an actor to emulate.
posted by Akke at 6:11 AM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

American living in France here, I've taught several French people – honestly, the biggest issue with how English accents (of whichever sort) are taught in France, is that the focus is always put on books (that and English teachers are rarely native English speakers, but that's another discussion).

Books won't help you as much as speaking with a native will. I've seen this firsthand with students! Find an American discussion group – I see you're in Paris, so there are definitely some – and ask for help with an American accent.

I imagine you've already seen plenty of movies and television in English; what you need is someone able to listen to you, point out issues, and work with you to achieve the accent. Everyone is different; this is why it's so important to have one-on-one with a native. A discussion group will likely have people who are experienced in that sort of tutoring (and the groups are usually free).
posted by fraula at 6:20 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am french myself and I am fluent in american english. Most people know I am not really from the States but never guess I am french. Often they think I grew up in the States in a foreign speaking family.

The #1 trick is to forget about sounding ridiculous. Leave aside any comments about trying to sound too cool when you speak. Not being too self conscious is half the battle
Look and hear the sounds like music. Train yourself, your hear, watch A LOT of american tv, and talk a lot. A lot has to do with your hearing too.
Forget what the word read like, LISTEN to them.

I taught myself by talking to myself I know, very weird, but if can't spend $$ or Euros on classes, get yourself in the state of mind that you are trying to tell someone about your day or something that happened. It won't help with correct pronunciation but will help with getting your brain trained.
posted by kirikara at 6:25 AM on March 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

I've known a number of people who acquired American accents in large part from watching old films and imitating specific actors they found iconic and interesting.

Socialization is doubtless better, but for a crash course, go to YouTube and search for famously slow-spoken actors in old, dialogue-heavy films: Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, etc.

Watch 10-15 of their films with the subtitles off, repeating lines until you can imitate details that make each actor's accent distinctive. It's not the very best way to learn, but it's vastly more engaging than following along in a book.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:29 AM on March 27, 2013

Look into accent training for actors. Learning IPA and applying it to your studies will make it much easier to adopt a dialect wholesale.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:44 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Without knowing more specific facts, it is hard to judge whether your interviewer's comment has merit. If you are applying for a job where you need to pass for American, your accent would be an impediment. Otherwise, it is hard to see how it could harm you. As long as your accent does not prevent you from being understood by native speakers, it should not be a problem. There is nothing wrong with an accent.

It is very, very difficult for an adult not to have a foreign accent. I have an accent in all of the languages I speak. That is simply how languages work. For example, since you are a native French speaker, I bet a giveaway that a foreigner speaks English natively is how they might pronounce initial "l"s in certain words. The "l" sounds in "letter" and "lottery" are different. A number of languages, such as French, do not have this distinction. You might be using the French "l" because most people are not aware of this distinction, but it's a dead giveaway to an English native speaker. That's just an example; there are lots of subtle details like that that can reveal that you are not a native speaker. So, it is very unlikely that you will eliminate all traces of your French accent.

But, since your question asks about audio tracks, you are blessed to live in France, the home of the wonderful Assimil series that has been such a boon to my language learning. I would recommend L'Anglais amérique. I am sure it will not teach you very much in the way of the language itself, but shadowing the audio component could be a help. Shadowing is the technique where you repeat the speech as soon as you hear it. (like, a fraction of a second later)
posted by Tanizaki at 6:49 AM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Can't help with books, so this might be minor advice, but I've noticed that speakers of Romance languages mispronounce only a small set of English sounds incorrectly, and they're usually the same ones. Identify if it's a particular vowel sound, for example, that's giving you away. Rhythm is another issue, not so much on where to put the stress in a word, but how to connect it to the words before and after it without getting a sort of staccato. Good luck in the job hunt!)
posted by resurrexit at 7:07 AM on March 27, 2013

Do you live in France? There's probably an English assistant in town who would be happy to have paid conversation practice and correct your pronunciation.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:11 AM on March 27, 2013

One dead give away would be your pronunciation of "th". My kids, born in a French speaking country, all say "de" when they want to say "the". Otherwise their English is almost perfect (or as perfect as that of their parents...) If you do tend towards "de" and you can work on that you'll stick out a little less.

Having said that, we love hearing our French speaking friends speak English, even with a discernible accent. I also have Francophone friends who have worked in the States and people have been fascinated by their accents even in a work/professional environment - it's not been a hinderance.
posted by IncognitoErgoSum at 7:23 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of free English Pronunciation podcasts available on iTunes. I can't speak to the quality, but you can't beat the price.
posted by brookeb at 7:47 AM on March 27, 2013

I agree with several of the comments above. As a comment by MikeTommasi on this article points out, "correct" accent is much less important in English than in French. "En anglais on peut s'exprimer de façon élégante avec n'importe quel accent, même français." As long as your accent is not an obstacle to comprehension, grammar and vocabulary will probably have much larger effects on how interviewers and colleagues perceive you.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:49 AM on March 27, 2013

Without hearing you speak or knowing your career goals, we can't really say how much accent reduction you would be useful for you.

I agree generally that the vast majority of Americans don't mind foreign accents, and are if anything usually charmed by them, but there are advantages to soft-pedalling an accent, especially if some hard of hearing people might have difficulty understanding you, especially over the phone.

If your accent is strong enough such that an interviewer saw fit to comment on it, then it's at least worth considering some methods to reduce it. Let's say for sake of argument that you will always have a French accent (and there's nothing wrong with that!): so long as you have the time and energy, you won't lose anything by softening it a bit, for delicate American ears.

Besides, we could argue until we're blue in the face that the interviewer was mistaken, but many other people out there might be "mistaken" in the same way.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:19 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

As a former ESL teacher and occasional accent reduction coach, the usual issues French speakers face in speaking US English clearly seem to be the "th" sound (both hard and soft, i.e. "that" and "theater"), the "r" sound, and the "a" sound in "cat", so be especially alert to those.

But agree with krikara that the most important thing is talking along with US media. Another thought is looking at and reading along (from the Project Gutenberg online texts) with the audio files. This reader has a very clear standard accent, for instance.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:16 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am not a native French speaker, so in order to fix my French accent, I recorded myself speaking French and played it back and re-recorded and played it back until I had successfully eliminated the anglophone sounds.

It really helped a lot. I noticed immediately on hearing the first recording that I wasn't getting the "tr/pr" type of sounds to come out right, in words like "traiter," "prêter," et cetera. And it marks you right away as a native English speaker. But it took a lot of practice to get it right. I'm sure my accent isn't perfect but it's pretty good now. I felt like the important step was being able to vocalize the sounds that we don't really have in English.

So maybe if you try recording yourself you can correct pronunciation that way.
posted by citron at 3:02 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think part of the problem is that in Europe you're taught English English not American English. I would ask the person who gave you this advice what words or sounds they think are the most problematic.

That said, I would mostly work on slowing down and enunciating (fully pronouncing the words). There is nothing more frustrating than someone who has a heavy accent and speaks too quickly!
posted by radioamy at 8:07 PM on March 27, 2013

I know you asked for books, but this website, speakmethod, has some good information, especially the "sound American" section. There are probably just a few things to master to sound employable, and they are probably the things that trouble most ESL (English second language) students.

The "l" sounds in "letter" and "lottery" are different.

I make those "l" sounds exactly the same way in each case. I'm American.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:11 PM on March 27, 2013

> Hello, I'm a French student preparing for English interviews and in my last mock session my interviewer talked about my accent that could put me at a disadvantage.

An accent is fine. Pronunciation that is difficult to understand -- that is a problem. In addition to other resources, ask your friends to help you identify which words sound garbled, and try to fix those. (The American th- sounds are notoriously frustrating to non-native speakers, that may not be a great battle to fight.)
posted by desuetude at 12:12 AM on March 28, 2013

I make those "l" sounds exactly the same way in each case. I'm American.

Like I said, most people are unaware of this distinct. Even native speakers.

The fancier linguistic terms would be the non-velar and velarized l (more colloquial, the "light l" and "dark l", respectively. For a perhaps more dramatic example, try the "l" at the beginning of "little" and the "l" at the end of "whole". Pay close attention to the position of your tongue in your mouth. The tongue's position, and the resulting sound, is different.

Most varieties of English have the velarized l. Some language, such as French, do not. That is a giveaway when a native speaker of English speaks French (they use the dark l) and vice versa (they don't use the dark l). This doesn't prevent someone from being perfectly understood, but it is an accent feature.

This phonological reasons are why a lot of suggestions for actor's dialect/accent coaching will be of limited impact. Training a native speaker of English to speak with another accent of English is a much easier proposition than training a non-native speaker of English to remove their foreign accent. When Hugh Laurie was learning an American accent, he didn't need to be taught how to make a "th" sound or a dark l because those phonemes already existed in his native language.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:49 AM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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