by Alysia Bartley

5 Pronunciation Tips to Get You Started on Changing Your Accent and Increase Your English Speaking Ability

smiling ladies with mustachios

Are people concerned about accents?

Overall, it appears so based on the Internet searches and firsthand experience teaching ESL to learners of varied ages.

Accents reveal the background of a person and their unique characteristics. Lots of people are proud of their accents and really like hearing other people’s accents, too. But, sometimes accents interfere with understanding and communicating. It might be difficult for people to understand what you have to say. You might be embarrassed by what you perceive as an accent and avoid social interactions. Frustration might set in if you notice that others don’t understand you. You may be asked to repeat yourself. People might get distracted from your accent and not attend to what you have to say. Speaking with an accent that is not intelligible to others may limit your educational or career advancement. This in turn may influence your self-confidence. These are many of the reasons that people are concerned about accents.

Does everyone speak with an accent?

Yup, everyone.

Even if you are a Canadian or American, your accent is impacted by the region in which you live. Canadians speak differently based on the region they are from. Likewise, Americans in southern states have a different accent that those in the northern states, and so on. Many of you might be ESL students and so when you speak English, you naturally have an accent as your native language is different from English. For example, someone who was raised speaking English will sound different from someone who was raised speaking any number of languages and learned English as an adult.

The important thing to know is that having an accent is normal. Accents are a natural part of spoken languages and not considered a speech or language “problem”.

Can you change your accent?

The good news is yes, you can learn to change your pronunciation.  Known as “accent reduction” or “accent modification”, this process takes some attention, hard work, and consistent practice. Generally, qualified speech and language pathologists and trained ESL teachers have worked with non-native English speakers, those who have regional accents, actors/actresses who want to learn an accent for a new character role, and other professionals (medical and business, etc.) who want to improve their speaking skills because of either a regional or foreign accent. Even those who work at international call centers have concern to change their accent. Although they might speak English quite well, their accent makes it difficult for the customer to understand.

Usually, a routine speech evaluation is performed whereby different factors of your speech are assessed. These factors include how you pronounce the vowels, consonants, and patterns of letters in selected words, sentences and paragraphs; and the intonation, rhythm, and stress of your speech. The speech/educational specialist will devise a plan to target individualized goals to help change your accent and help to improve your communication, in general.

Class sessions are not enough. You will need to practice the exercises learned in class and also try to incorporate these into your everyday speech. A helpful suggestion is to tape your casual conversation to listen to the areas you are working on. For example, if you can’t say a certain sound like “r” or final “l”, then concentrate on speaking using several words that have the “r” or final “l” sound. Then play back the tape. How well did you do? How did you pronounce the words? It is also a good idea to concentrate on one or two areas at a time, or the process of modifying or reducing your accent will seem overwhelming.  Then when you have mastered these areas you can move on to additional areas of concern.

What are some common goals that people have when changing their accent?

Some people want to change their accents to meet personal and professional goals. Others hope to have more skill in conversations, both informal (day-to-day conversations, speaking to strangers, speaking on the phone) and formal (speech presentation, meetings, etc.) Many students want to increase their confidence with the English language, while others want to ensure greater understanding from their audience. You might have thought about changing your accent for one of these many reasons, or perhaps you have an additional reason.

Pronunciation Tips

The English language is considered a stressed language, whereby certain words are stressed (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) opposed to shorter words like articles, pronouns, helping verbs, prepositions, and negative contractions. In the English language, you listen from the stress to the stress in words no matter the length of the word.

For example, in the sentence:  I need to go to the store today, you would stress the words:  need, go, store, and today. You glide over the unstressed words. Now, try the sentence with me: I need to go to the store today. How long you take to say various sentences depends on the number of stressed words in a sentence and not the original length of the sentence.

Tip #1: To help with pronunciation, you can take a paragraph from a magazine or newspaper and then underline the stressed words. Then practice reading this aloud. Try to focus on the stressed words and glide over the unstressed ones. Repeat this several times until you are comfortable speaking. For example, here is a paragraph that I just read in a health magazine:

There are certain things in life you are willing to take a chance on.

Maybe it’s a Powerball ticket, a new job or the last hot dog on the

Roller at the gas station. But what about cancer odds? No matter how

small the odds, would you feel comfortable risking your health (Balance, 2014).

Now, you can copy the paragraph and mark the stressed syllables like this:

There are certain things in life you are willing to take a chance on.

Maybe it’s a Powerball ticket, a new job or the last hot dog on the

roller at the gas station. But what about cancer odds? No matter how

small the odds, would you feel comfortable risking your health? (Balance, 2014)

Practice reading out loud the paragraph and stress the marked words. Then tape yourself reading the paragraph after you have successfully mastered it, play the recording and assess your speech. How does it sound?  You can find a longer paragraph and continue to practice.

Tip #2: Another tip is to listen to native speakers, and focus on the stressed words. Try to repeat various phrases and sentences either in your head or aloud to imitate the English you have heard. Again, repeat this several times until you can more naturally say the intended speech.

For example, my friend who has stopped to visit me just asked, “Are you almost finished with that article? It’s a nice day and we should go for a run.” So I thought I would try this tip. I repeated my friend’s question in my brain, trying to imitate the correct stress of the words she used: “Are you almost finished with that article? It’s a nice day and we should go for a run.” Then I stressed the words aloud: “Are you almost finished with that article? It’s a nice day and we should go for a run.”

She looked at me, wondering why I repeated what she had just said. I filled her in on the article I was writing and how in the English language certain words are stressed. “Oh, I get it,” she said smiling. “Quickly, finish and let’s go.”

I smiled at her and thought to myself, “Oh, I get it… Quickly, finish and let’s go.” Then I said, “Sure, thing. Give me a few more minutes.”

cute toddler boy sitting on the stairs

Tip #3: These two charts of the International Phonetic Alphabet – IPA (vowel and diphthong sounds, and consonant phonemes) can be used for individualized practice. You can read the words aloud, then tape your voice and listen to the recording. Practice continues until you feel comfortable with the sounds and you have incorporated these into your daily speech. You can make a word list of other words that have those specific sounds and target any areas that you may need help or you are having difficulty with. You will notice the phonetic symbols in the charts, much like the symbols in a dictionary to aid in proper pronunciation. Understanding the phonetic alphabet will help you to improve your accent and your overall English ability. Individual sounds, sound clusters, and blends (connecting sounds to each other) are all important parts of English to be aware of and to practice.  Here are some of the common sounds:

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Tip #4: Thought groups with adequate pausing and the correct intonation are important areas to think about and incorporate in your ESL communication. For example, a simple math problem (a + b) X c is clearly different from a + (b X c). Can you say both of these problems with the correct pause that is indicated by the parenthesis? Usually there is a falling pitch right before a pause so the listener can comprehend what you have said before you continue.

Now, let’s look at the importance of thought groups and pausing in these sentence examples:

Sentence 1: “Harry,” shouted John, “is a great guy!”

Sentence 2: Harry shouted, “John is a great guy!”

In the first sentence, John is talking about Harry and mentioning that he is a great guy. In the second sentence, Harry is the one talking. He is saying that John is a great guy. So you can see from this simple example, that pausing after specific thought groups (depending on the what you want to say) is very important in getting across the meaning of what you want to say.

Another area to work on is questions. Did you realize that when you ask a question beginning with a “wh” word like what, where, when, why, and who… that your voice goes up? For example: What are you doing? Where are you going? When does your flight leave? Why are you weeding the garden? And, who is going to the movies with you? — These sentences all end with your voice rising.

However, when you ask a “yes” or “no” question, your voice falls. For example: “Do you want to have coffee now?” “Did you say it was 3:00 p.m.?” and “Are you watching the golf tournament?”

To be successful with this skill, it is important to slow down and to pause between the thought groups. You can also focus on developing your listening skills. Listen for pauses, ups and downs of the English language, and the beginning words in questions… and then try to imitate this when speaking.

Tip #5:  Further study. There are a number of independent study courses and resources you can use to help with your accent. You can check at the local library or bookstore. Another suggestion is to look online at various options by searching for pronunciation for ESL success, accent training, American accents, etc.

Online ESL programs of study will also be helpful as you will be matched to a competent teacher who can access your English and then target specific goals to help you with areas of concern/need. As mentioned earlier in this article, the assessment piece is very valuable in helping reduce/modify your accent… and moving you closer to your ESL language acquisition goals.

Additional Comments and Suggestions

There are several key factors that will help you with your accent reduction. Some of these you have control over and some you don’t.

For example, how closely your native language is to the English language will help with the overall accent. You will have less of an accent and probably less difficulty with sounds in general and the number of sounds if your native language is more similar to English and its alphabet system. But you certainly can’t control what native language you speak.

How motivated and concerned you are to do something about your accent plays a very important role in changing your accent.

Another consideration is the exposure you have to the English language. This includes the time spent in practice, listening, and speaking. Quality, not quantity, is what is key here.

The learner’s natural ability also plays into the equation of helping to change your accent. Hard work will also take you far in this language goal.

Finally, your sense of identity and how sure of yourself in speaking English helps you to become more comfortable as an ESL speaker. You can hear yourself speak English, and you are happy with what you sound like.

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Please write to me in the space below and let me know how you feel about your accent. What do you think about some of the tips in this article? Or maybe you have a tip to share with others to help reduce their accent. What has worked for you?  I look forward to hearing from you.

Please write and let me know how I can help you with your accent or anything else related to ESL. I’ll be waiting.

(Note the words in bold are stressed in speaking.)

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About the author:

Alysia is a co-founder of TalktoCanada. Since founding the online English teaching company in 2006, she has gone on to teach over 10,000 hours of online classes and managed large and small English training projects around the world. During her free time you can find her listening to the latest business book, travelling and going to the gym.