A Realistic Path Toward Accent Reduction

I’m not a big believer in accent elimination. A successful pronunciation lesson of mine doesn’t guarantee a 100% “native-like accent.” I support progress towards accent reduction. The end goal is clear, natural, confident pronunciation. Reducing one’s foreign accent in English is about targeting a model closely enough so that variations don’t confuse or distract the listener from the message being delivered. This is what I call a realistic goal, and my job as a teacher is to create a practical path to reach that end.

Accent reduction is a common request among my private students and my online following. I enjoy the task of tailoring a study plan for an individual student, but also I offer a number of free resources on social media to support independent study. For those who approach me seeking personal guidance, I combine relevant resources with a number of different strategies. One student might be preparing for a conference presentation. Another may need to improve their effectiveness over the phone. I don’t think one set of pronunciation exercises fits every student, so I like to use what they can provide (e.g., presentation notes), online texts that match their interests, and/or original texts written with a given student’s needs in mind.

Texts become the basis for drilling and oral reading. Practice is two-fold. For real progress to happen, the learner must commit to independent practice between lessons. It’s never enough to meet for a live lesson and depend on that 30- or 60-minute session for sufficient practice and feedback. I can tell when a student has invested time and worked on language elements I highlighted in a text. Regular practice always pays off. Accuracy and confidence can’t be faked.

Putting tools in students’ hands is an important way to empower them now and in the future. I’ve sang the praises of YouGlish and Forvo in a previous post, and I continue to recommend these pronunciation tools. I also make sure students are aware of the benefits of a good learner’s dictionary with audio samples. I want them to have more than one model to choose from.

I may drill a language item a few different ways in a live class. How you drill and how much you drill is up you and your teaching style, but the short, intense repetition makes a learner more aware of a particular weakness and sets them up for self-correction later when they read or speak. The more advanced a learner is, the more time they’ve had for fossilization. Drilling and repetitive reading help chip away at old habits and build better ones.

During independent practice, self-evaluation is important. I often provide my own model through a recorded lesson or an mp3. Students can listen to my model as often as they wish, but then comes the challenge of recording oneself and determining how accurately they approximated my speech. I’ve found that color-coding a text is helpful to point out inaccuracies with sounds, stress, and intonation. I also rely on the color-coding to remember what we’ve been working on.

Along the path to accent reduction, learners need our feedback, and how we give it is important. Pronunciation is an aspect of language learning that can negatively affect a student’s self-esteem.  A good number of learners seek accent training after they’ve had time to form a very self-critical view of their accent, so praise might not have much of an effect, at least initially. A single compliment no matter how genuine can’t immediately erase months or years of criticism. Too much praise can also come across as false.

I believe in giving different levels of approval. For example, as I listen to a student read a passage, I may give a quiet thumbs-up so as not to interrupt, but also as a simple acknowledgement that a challenging piece of language was read correctly. If it’s something the student had previously struggled with, then I might compliment the student right after they finish. Students need our ears to catch what they’re doing right and what still needs to be corrected. They can develop the ability to self-evaluate, but while they study with us, they rely on our judgment. When accuracy is achieved, we can match the praise with the moment. There’s a difference between a calm “Good job!” and an enthusiastic “That was beautiful!” Having the sensitivity to what the student needs to hear can help the success of a lesson.

What tips do you have for helping students achieve accent reduction? Feel free to share.

Featured photo by rupixen. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/music-headphones-headset-listening-4345611/.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Arun Goyal says:

    That’s like a good teacher.
    In medieval India, there were many poets who were part of the reformist movement in popular languages. One of them was Kabir. He says
    Guru kumhar, sis kumbh hai, gadh gadh kadhe khot
    Antar haath sahaar de, bahri lage chot
    The teacher is the potter, student is the pot
    He beats and shapes the outer surface while hand holding the inner part.

    1. Hi Arun. I like the idea of shaping something together, with the teacher using skill and artistry. I’m not sure I like to think of me beating a student into shape, though! LOL Thanks for reading my new post. 🙂

      1. Arun Goyal says:

        Actually, I could not find the english equivalent of “gadh gadh” so used the word “beating”. The poet Kabir used it in the sense of vigorous and firm tapping or slapping with the palm and fingers. Its basically shaking.
        Personally, I am for strong action on students. They should be pushed forward. Break barriers. No molly coddling.
        I remember my own case of how i finally learnt to dive at age 52..the coach. younger than me, shouted at me in string language for not doing it right, I was crestfallen, and did the actions in right sequence to dive for the first time in 46 years of swimming.. Every since, I dive deep.
        So there is no single answer. The guru has to use what is appropriate in the circumstances.
        Have a good and restful Sunday, Jennifer.
        (I may be in Las Vegas in April 2020..)

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