I’ve been watching the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi and have the greatest admiration for the athletes. Not only do I enjoy seeing their athleticism and fierce competition, but I like hearing about their lives. It’s really inspirational. Yes, I marvel at the graceful figure skating pairs and the daring free-style skiers, but I admit I am totally impressed over the human interest stories. You know the kind that pull you in for more to learn about the hardships so many of the families endure so their “Olympians” can take lessons and those tales that capture community pride in unwavering support of their hometown heroes. Yes, I listen to every word spoken as these athletes share their dreams in English, typically dotted with distinctive accents. Yes, I listen to the accents, too, which to be honest has caused me to do a lot of thinking about English language learning, and about the American and Canadian English accent. So much that I wanted to do some research… that is in-between the Olympic events. Here are some interesting things that I have found out:
Q. Why do languages develop different accents?
A. It seems that human beings who live within their own social groups develop similar ways to express themselves. The environment in which you grow up as a child shapes the way you speak, which becomes the basis for any future language development. This includes second language learning (of which I am most interested in learning about ESL to help students who are studying English). If a group of people from the same area move or relocate together to a different geographical area like the English did when they ventured to Colonial America in the Great Migration (1620-1640), then you bring your accents with you. You are now shaped by your new environment.
Q. Is there a standard accent for the English language?
A. No, there is no single correct accent in the English language. There are many different accents that need to be understood when talking with others in English. This is much like watching the Olympics and hearing second language speakers from all over the world with their varying English accents. This is probably something you have noticed, too, when you are around other ESL learners. People’s accents may be similar or different to yours.
Many accents are regionally based. However, when ESL is taught it seems there are two more commonly taught accents that are used over a wide geographical area. They are heard the most and a majority of people are more familiar with them. There is the general American English coming from the West Coast and Midwest areas of the United States AND the British accent which was developed in the nineteenth century and associated with a higher class in England. These two accents are the ones that are commonly transcribed in dictionaries so we can all learn aspects of the English language.
Q. Do accents change?
A. Accents do change over time, but languages that are spoken in more isolated, rural areas tend not to change as much, or they may take longer to change (as mentioned above). When a group of people associate with other groups of people, they tend to have their language shaped by the “new group”. This is one reason why there are so many different accents throughout the world.
Q. Well then, if accents change in this way for groups of people, can I change my individual accent?
A. Yes, accents are fluid and they can change. An accent is easier to change when someone is younger. Research suggests that under the age of twenty is ideal. However, if you want to change or need to change your accent, you can at any age. Think about actors and actresses. They often use an accent for a particular character role. In fact, they seem to do this almost effortlessly, no matter what their age. So their willingness to learn and the need to change their accent must drive them to meet success in this area.
Linguists have found that the most important factor in changing an accent is your willingness to want to change. Ask yourself these questions. How much do you want to change your accent? How much do you want to sound like a native English-speaker? How much effort are you able to put forth to make this happen? What are your goals in language learning?
These questions are important because it will take effort to change your accent by being around the “language” you want to hear. This can be accomplished in several ways. You can plan ways to be physically in an environment that uses that language like when you move to a new country or accept a job that involves using the language while you work. You can cultivate friendships like being around those who speak the language as much as possible. And you can engage in experiences like study, travel, and social activities that allow you to hear and use that language a lot.
Sometimes the “change in accent” comes naturally with the physical move to a new place, meeting different people, and having new aspirations. Other times, you can study the language through online courses or by taking a class, reading books and magazines, watching movies and television, listening to the radio and enjoying music. You can try to be more involved with people of the native language, etc. so these factors can really help you “change your accent”.
So ask yourself these questions. How much do you want to change your accent? How much do you want to sound like a native English-speaker? How much effort are you able to put forth to make this happen? What are your goals in language learning?
Q. What steps do you take to change your accent?
A. As mentioned earlier, the most important thing that you can do is expose yourself to the accent as much as you can. You can also try to associate with people who speak the accent you want and not remain with those who may not share your positive outlook, or with those individuals who may not want you to change your accent. There is no room for criticism or negativity when you want to move forward and gain confidence in ESL. Remember that the more time you spend focusing and working on your accent, the more progress you will make in this area. With this progress comes increased confidence, which in turn propels you further in your study of the English language.
Q. What is one simple technique that will be sure to help you with your desired accent?
A. Many linguists and fellow ESL teachers suggest taping an English-speaking person for about 15-20 minutes. This could be from the radio, television, music, film, or even from an English-speaking friend. You might be able to find a speech online or some other text that you can tape. Then you listen to the tape a few times. Every day for about 15-20 minutes, you devote time to work on your accent. You play one sentence at a time and then you repeat after that sentence. You repeat the sentence about 8-10 times until you can mirror what is being said, desired accent and all. It might help to isolate out any individual letter sounds that are difficult to make or any words/phrases that are hard to say. Then you can work on those parts separately until you have mastered them and are ready to try the complete sentence again. Some instructors prefer that you speak with the speaker as in a choral speech and to listen to how your accent matches the native English speaker; others suggest that you speak after the person because this way of practicing will allow you to match the accent of the native speaker after hearing it (you can see this method demonstrated in the video below).
The next day you review what you have already mastered and placed into short-term memory, and then you build on that with a new sentence. After you have completed this process with the entire tape, you can record a new English text. From time to time you can go back and review what you have learned. Again, you can isolate out difficult areas to review.
Then you need to apply what you have learned to your everyday speech. Try to use some of these words and phrases in your conversation. There’s a lot to talk about. For example, if you taped a television weather reporter, then maybe you can use a few of these same phrases and talk about the weather. Likewise, you can integrate some of the other words and phrases into your casual language. While doing this, you can take note of how your accent is changing as you study daily, weekly, monthly, and how you apply what you have learned to your everyday speech.
Here is an example of how this is done with 500 Days of Summer, a film clip shown on Rachel’s English. Notice that the emphasis is on carefully listening to and repeating what is being said. Some of the words are “nonsense words” which mean they are not real words, so it is not important to look up words that you may not have heard before or even to worry about the spelling or meaning of certain words you hear. Your attention is directed in how to say what you hear through the repetition of the native language and to concentrate on the pronunciation and accent. You develop native language fluency:
Q. Are there any other tips you would recommend to help change your pronunciation/accent?
A. Yes, never give up. There are those who met success under even more extreme circumstances. Be diligent towards your goal and you, too, can meet success.
The movie The King’s Speech with actor Colin Firth who plays the role of King George VI is a great movie. It shows the effort that the King put forth to be able to meet success with a crippling speech impediment that he harbored his entire life. The movie tells the story of a man who did not want to be King and of someone who did not “…want to be heard”. When the King must tell his people that they are on the advent of WW II, he must give a speech. The movie shows the persistent effort that King George undertook (i.e. attending speech therapy for an hour, 7 days a week) and how he changes words in the speech, practices the speech over and over again, marks up the speech into segments that are more manageable, and how he remembers the words of his therapist, “…You can do it… You can succeed!”
The interview also captures Colin Firth who shares a story about when he was younger and how he changed his accent.
I think you will agree that watching this film clip of The King’s Speech and the interview with Oscar winning actor Colin Firth is motivating:
▶ Colin Firth and The King’s Speech
I hope this article helps you to understand the role that accents play in language development and that at the same time it gives you the motivation to focus on your English language accent. Perhaps you will find the clips from the two movies helpful, as well. I look forward to watching more of the Olympic Games and in hearing from more of the Olympic athletes, accents and all.
Have you focused on changing your English language accent? Have you had results? Use the comments section below to tell me all about it.