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February 17, 2008 11:42 AM   Subscribe

How do I re-learn how to pronounce words in English and minimize my accent?

I learned English by 'osmosis'. That is, by reading, watching movies and videogames. It wasn't intentional so I didn't apply a lot of effort to reading aloud and improving my speech. This, of course, means that while I can understand and produce English, I can't actually speak it without having a very strong accent. I think this is because I started reading before I knew how to pronounce so my brain had to make up most of it.

I have been studying English formally for a couple of years and while my grammar and aural comprehension have improved, my accent is only marginally better.

I can learn how a word sounds, how it is pronounced (thanks to IPA) and repeat it a couple of times with good pronunciation. However, my brain insists on using the old pronunciation I have on my head when I have to use it afterwards.

So, besides practicing with native speakers (which I plan to do sooner or later by Skype or something), what can I do to improve my accent? Is it even possible?
posted by Memo to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
What my mom is currently doing (I'm listening to her as I type) is read things out loud from a book and concentrate not necessarily on the content, but on the individual pronounciation. It's hard to retrain your brain to accept a pronounciation unless it's taken in context of a sentence. She usually has an online dictionary open so she can check the pronounciation of a given word fairly easily and she's working her way through a giant Chemistry textbook - you, of course, might choose a literary text instead.

Don't give up hope, improving your accent is possible. It's takes a long time and a lot of hard work, but if you keep at it it's definitely possible.
posted by Phire at 11:57 AM on February 17, 2008

WHen I was studying Russian I went to phonetics classes where they had me practice reading poetry. I paid strict attention to intonation (since proper Russian intonation is hard for English speakers) and memorized long passages. I had one class where we memorized and acted out a whole movie.

THis is an old fashioned method of language learning, and a lot of pedagogues don't like it. It did, however, help me. You need to imitate an accent for a while until you hear a language the way a native speaker would. IMHO It's easier to imitate a movie than a friend.

I also found learning to sing in Russian very helpful. I went from having a terrible accent to quite a good one.

I seldom find Spanish speakers hard to understand, and most North Americans (except for the racist assholes) really like the sound of Spanish accents. THe only one thing that causes problems is vowel length, since I assume this is not a distinctive feature of Spanish. I don't speak Spanish, but we were able to teach my brother-in-law to say sheets instead of shits, and beach instead of bitch. He worked really hard on that.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 12:09 PM on February 17, 2008

Well, your tongue is made of muscle, and can be trained with exercise like any other muscle. Find some tongue twisters to practice on.

You don't get better at something by staying in your comfort zone, you need to push yourself. Record yourself speaking (reading a passage, doing tongue twisters, singing) and listen back to it with a native speaker, maybe a friend who's accent you admire, and have them point out areas you need improvement in, maybe show it to a few different people and get a range of opinions.

Someone who can be brutally honest is probably going to be more helpful than someone who is going to tell you you're doing great when you're not. Something as conspicuous as the way you speak your words has serious potential to be a source of embarrassment, but one of the great things about English is the many different ways it is spoken. Maybe you can try out some different accents for practice.

Check out the speech accent archive, their example passage (please call stella...) is supposed to have all of the sounds of the English language in it.

Good luck!
posted by knowles at 12:34 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

From what I know about learning theory, the important thing is extinguish the wrong pronunciation by not repeating it. So the key would to read aloud very carefully to make sure you are getting each word right. Memorizing poetry probably helps because the correct pronunciation gets embedded into your brain as part of a larger string of words.

My son, an American born, native English speaker still has troubles with words he learned from reading before he ever heard them. So it is a common problem among the well-read. Good luck!
posted by metahawk at 12:38 PM on February 17, 2008

if you want an american accent, why not download some National Public Radio shows? they offer a lot of news shows and fun little game shows that will entertain you.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:45 PM on February 17, 2008

There are actually pronunciation coaches that will work with you to make your accent more like that of a native speaker. I don't know the names of any offhand, but I recall seeing a video of one Americanizing the accents of phone workers in India.

English is a particularly tough beast to master, especially due to the quirky nature of its dipthongs and the lingual-alveolar stops. Perhaps a resource like this one might also help, in addition to what people mentioned above. Best of luck in your studies!
posted by Lycaste at 2:04 PM on February 17, 2008

American English or UK English?

The best option would be to get a recording of a network (ABC CBS NBC in the US, BBC in the UK) national newscast, listen and imitate. And tape yourself while doing it. Figure out the differences.

It might sounds childish, but get one of those talking books that kids use to learn to read and write. It will give you the deep-down basics of the pronunciation of the 26 letters and the trillion different ways they can be pronounced depending.

Get it from the UK or USA depending on which accent you're looking for. Or learn them both.

What's your native language?
posted by gjc at 2:27 PM on February 17, 2008

Acquire an English-language audio book of a book you like. Get the English-language written version of the book, if you don't already have it. Read aloud with the recording. Repeat as often as necessary (which is why you should like the book!).
posted by rtha at 2:58 PM on February 17, 2008

I agree with gjc and rtha on this one, but I'd go further and suggest your favorite movies on DVD. I'm not sure which dialect of English you're looking at (British, American, Australian, etc.), but just pick any movies with the selected dialect you're wishing to speak, listen to it and then try to imitate how they say it.

Naturally I wouldn't pick any film with thick sub-regional English dialects such as My Cousin Vinny, Trainspotting, Fargo or Good Will Hunting.
posted by magnoliasouth at 3:26 PM on February 17, 2008

I don't know exactly what you sound like, but this may be of some help. I have a Southern American accent, and I live in the North. I love my accent, and I am proud of it, but I was having difficulty making myself understood in a city where the local accent is thick and English is frequently a second language, so I realized I had to be able to moderate it.

I did this by 1. speeding up and 2. adding "grace note" vowels in my head. For example, the word "pants" is one that I would naturally pronounce as "payants," because Southerners drawl. So I say it faster and I add a higher, shortening sound in the front of the word, as if I were saying "peeants." But, and this is key, no one else in this region hears me saying "peeants;" they just hear "pants."

Listen to a standardized English pronunciation of the type you'd like to achieve, then compare that to the words you actually say. It may help you to speed up and combine "grace note" vowels (shorter or longer ones) in your words in order to make yourself clearer. Or it may not -- again, I can't hear you, and for another thing I made up this method on the fly. But I hope it does.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:10 PM on February 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

One thing I've always mentioned to my students is that English pronunciation differs wildly between and within countries that speak English as their primary language, let alone elsewhere. It's obvious to native speakers, of course, but not something that many of them think about much.

The other thing that I mention is that it is the vowel sounds that differ, along with stress and rhythm, rather than, for the most part, consonant sounds.

I have found that one good entry point into the systematic examination of how the system works is thinking about voiced and unvoiced consonants, and the way that the vowel sounds that precede them change, in terms especially of duration and stress and the way that the resultant rhythm forms the underlying rhythms of native speaker speech, including the way in which sounds are run together or omitted entirely.

A trivial example follows:

think of the vowel sounds in the words bed and bet.

A native speaker (at least one with my trans-atlantic, rather flat accent) will lengthen the duration of the 'e' sound that precedes the voiced 'd', but shorten the duration of the identical 'e' sound that precedes the unvoiced 't'.

Putting this together into longer words and phrases gives one excellent way of thinking about the rhythm of speech. The effects of voicing crop up everywhere, once one begins to look. The broad outline of the way I teach pronunciation when I teach it is that although some attempt must be made to try and model the correct sounds in isolation, it is the rhythm, stress and intonation of syllables in concert that results in a relatively systematic way from the underlying voicing system (and other factors) that contributes much to clearer speech.

A good learner-focussed textbook that deals with this idea, that not only the sounds but the rhythm and stress of syllables are vitally important to honing in closer to a 'native-speaker-like' pronunciation (whatever that means) is Clear Speech 2nd Ed., by Judy D Gilbert, from Cambridge University Press. It is the pronunciation text I most use and recommend.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:56 PM on February 17, 2008

So long as you're understandable, having an accent isn't a problem. Unless you're stuck somewhere and need to prove your "legitimacy". One big thing I learned from a native French speaker about her English (and subsequently about my French) is that no matter how much you practice your accent, it will always be there because you're not a native speaker. She advised me to do more about getting over the way I sound in French than to make myself sound like a newscaster. No one sounds like a newscaster; it's why they all go to school for it.

It's you're dead set on getting rid of your accent. Work extensively on syllable sounds. I'm not sure if it's the consonant clusters or the way the vowels are pronounced which is giving you more trouble, but focus on the sounds independently and then start putting them into words.

But, again, so long as you can be understood clearly to a native speaker with relative ease, there's no reason to stress about the way you sound.
posted by Gular at 5:17 PM on February 17, 2008

*if you're dead set. yeah typing!
posted by Gular at 5:17 PM on February 17, 2008

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