The Most Important Goals of Accent Neutralization

What are the most important goals for an accent neutralization program?

You might think the sounds of English are the most important goals to work on. But what many don’t realise is there are additional features of English that may be more helpful to focus on. These features include word stress and sentence stress, rhythm, intonation and linking words.

The wrong stress on a word may confuse your listener. Percent sounds like person with the stress on the wrong syllable.

Wrong sentence stress or wrong intonation can confuse your listener, and he may think you’re asking a question, or you’re not finished talking yet, if your intonation goes up instead of down.

Not linking sounds in words and between words. If you ask for a Die Et Coke, will they understand you want diet coke?  Learn to link inside and between words. (diyet coke)

Sounds of English are important to learn (bag and beg are not the same), and other features of english are valuable to learn too.

Having another person listen and point out your errors is a good first step to pronouncing English clearly. A teacher who provides feedback and sets goals for learning is the next best step. Be sure to learn these other features of English along with learning sounds.


How do I know if I need English Pronunciation Lessons?

Pronunciation lessons promote clearer English speech

Pronunciation lessons promote clearer English speech

How do I know if I need lessons?

  • Your listeners look confused, and often ask you to repeat.
  • You make errors that offend others because they misunderstand your meaning (such as “dog” for “Doug”).
  • You say single words clearly, but pronouncing sentences is not understandable.
  • You miss career advancement because of your foreign accent.
  • You struggle to communicate with new people, or on the telephone.
  • You avoid using English because you are afraid of making mistakes.

Learn more about English pronunciation lessons here.

A Day in the Life of an SLP – Accent Modification


Day in the Life of an SLP Accent ModificationI’m headed off to work this morning, where I’ll spend 2 hours in English pronunciation class with adults from 5 different countries and cultures.  It’s every Monday morning and my current clients are Iranian, Chinese (Mandarin), Taiwanese, Korean and Japanese.  Our class is part of an ESL (English as a Second Language) program in our community.  Stand-alone courses like this are often called accent modification, and can be taught to groups or individuals.  The success of the program relies on client participation and teacher feedback.  As a speech language pathologist, I am applying my knowledge of American English to help clients.  The goals are for clients to understand spoken English better, and to speak English in a way that they are understood better by Americans.

ESL Classes

We learn and practice the sounds of English.  But just as important as sounds, we learn linking patterns in phrases and sentences.  We learn reductions (like “going to” is often reduced to “gonna”), because it improves listening comprehension.  We learn about rhythm, stress and intonation, which is particularly hard for students whose first language is monotone.  This photo shows clients and I practicing strong and weak stress patterns in sentences, moving a ball high or low as we speak. Lastly American culture is often a topic in class, as well as techniques to improve communication styles.

It’s the start of a new class and I need to record each client with a brief test.  I will listen to each recording and identify the target goals for that client.  I’ll write it up in a one page summary.  I’ll also take a recording at the end of the year for all the clients, and do another summary page.  This prep takes time, but is worth it to have pre-and post- recordings.  Clients get a listening home practice assignment each week.  They write a short paragraph and read it in class, and I provide feedback.  After class I read their home practice sheets to get a better idea of how each is listening, understanding and writing in English.

ESL classroom

To prepare for class, I’m following a text, choosing the lessons that are most needed for this class (L vs. R, and stress & rhythm),  but I also developed my own materials to teach about things that seems overlooked in pronunciation, (things such as jaw height for vowel sounds, for example). Early on, I had to try a number of texts and materials.  I also did some formal training, but much of my skill was learned “on the job” with clients.  It’s important to take notes on what topics come up for your clients.  I developed a curriculum, but often the need for new skills shows up in a session.  I research or develop materials to add when this is of value to the clients.

I see individuals, in person and by videochat.  Sessions are often held in the evening or early morning, because they are needed to fit around the client’s work.  Each client gets pre- and post- testing for a course, which is generally 15 weeks.  Some clients choose to take a second, or third course.  Each client uses a text with CDs of the American English accent.   I spend time prepping materials specifically chosen for each client. Often I record audio and upload it to Dropbox for clients to hear and practice.

I live in a high tech area that draws a lot of internationals.  I think that is why I’ve been successful at booking accent modification clients.  My clients are often professional men and women, who desire to advance at work, and they find their accent or communication style may be holding them back.  I work with children of professionals who want their child or teen to sound more like an American.  This translates to better education and work prospects for them. I work with housewives, who upon coming to the U.S. realize their English teacher back in Japan or Korea taught them a lot of wrong things!

Speech language pathologists are uniquely qualified to teach accent modification. Your training and experience with speech, language and communication has prepared you to begin today.  If this is an area that interests you, I would encourage you to explore the possibilities.  SLPs are a generous group of people who will share materials, and ideas, and cheer you on in this area!  Many thousands of people worldwide desire to communicate in English.  Therefore competency in speaking and understanding English is greatly sought after now, and it will be in the future.

Pronunciation Apps & Internet Resources

Pronunciation Apps Listening Resources imageBe sure to use your tablet or computer for additional help with Pronouncing English. The following resources (free or cheap) focus on the North American English pronunciation.

MacMillan The Pronunciation App (free) This features words using the sounds of English with IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).  It has practice and quizzes for reading, writing and listening.

K12Phonemes (free) Learn the sounds of English with sounds and words, plus a nice video of a real person speaking.

Sounds of Speech  ($3.00) This is from the Iowa Phonetics project.  You’ll see and hear sounds of English with a video illustration of the mouth saying the sounds/words.  The app is $2.99.  You can access the program for free with your laptop by going to the University of Iowa Phonetics home (available on a computer or laptop only, not a tablet.)

Dragon Dictation (free) Set it to American English. and the Dragon Dication computer program will try to recognize and turn your spoken sentence into printed text.  See how well you’re pronouncing English!

Here are free resources for listening.  Audio is in beginner, intermdiate and advanced levels, many with audio transcripts.

  1. Randall’s Listening Lab
  2. English Listening
  3. Many Things
  4. Talk English
  5. Agenda Web
  6. Rong-Chang Listening

Keep up the good work learning English!

“Long” Vowels and “Long” Stress – What’s the Difference?

Long Vowels Stress English Pronunciation Accent ReductionAre you confusing “long” vowels and “long” stress?

These are not the same!  When you study English intonation and melody, you learn about strong stress and weak stress.

In English, the vowels in stressed syllables are longer, louder, and have a higher pitch. (In many language they are only louder).  More about English stress here.

Here’s the tricky part:  you can give a short vowel some long stress in a word or sentence.  It still stays a short vowel!  That is because “short” vowel is just the name.

  • short a
  • short e
  • short i
  • short o
  • short u

These are all just names the phonics teacher gave the sounds to teach that they were different from other sounds in English.  More about the sound names here.

You can (and should) use short vowels, giving them a longer duration when they are the strong stressed syllable in a word or phrase.  All these words have short vowels and strong (long) stress:

  • short a – ACTor
  • short e – HEAvy
  • short i – MISter
  • short o – OCTopus
  • short u – UNder

Don’t worry about “long” and “short” when these are just names!  Concentrate on the correct strong(long) stress, and weak stress, to help your listener understand.

  • If you mean “person” say PERson, and not perCENT.
  • If you mean “bamboo” say bamBOO, and no BOMBboo.

English listeners are listening for the strong syllables, and will try to determine what you mean based on your strong stressed syllables.




Using a Stress Ball to Teach English Stress & Intonation

english stress lessonWhen you teach English stress you must emphasise the strong and weak parts of words and sentences. I do this by using a child’s play ball.

Teach the basics: Strong stress will sound longer, louder and have a higher pitch. Weak stress will sound shorter, quieter and have a lower pitch.

Practice it with words: com PU ter, SA tur day

Use the ball to show the stress intonation. For com PU ter, hold the ball low-high-low.  for SA ter day, hold the ball high-low-low.

I like to have the students move the ball in a left-to-right progression.  This is how we read in English. Since I stand in front of them, I use right-to-left, and they copy me (mirror-like) and do left-to-right.

stress intonation EnglishThe balls I use in class can be purchased at a party supply or toy store, and they should be about 3 inches in diameter. Large enough to fit comfortably in the hand. The soft ones, or the ones designed to use as water toys, are best. Bouncy balls will go shooting, or rolling, across the room when dropped. The soft balls do not roll away.

I like these stress game activities from Mark Hancock’s Pronunciation Games book.pronunciation games Hancock is writing about British English, so some of the words may have an unexpected spelling or accent, and may not be appropriate if you are teaching North American English. Still it’s a good resource. I introduce the Rhythm Dominoes first (just the lesson, no game) because there are only 6 stress patterns covered. More advanced classes can play the dominoes game afterward.

Then I do the Fishing game next. It has 11 stress patterns so it will take more time to go through and have your students practice. Whether you play the Rhythm Dominoes or the Fishing games, help your students by practicing the stress patterns many times. Some students might even need hand-over-hand demonstration of how the pattern rises and falls. So be prepared to put your hand over theirs and help them make the rising and falling movements.

It may help with multi-syllable words to instruct students to “jump” up, and “step” down in the intonation.

You may notice that weak syllables may have reduced vowels, and I explain that more in the next post.



Why an Accent Reduction Course?

pronunciation courseClient – “Why do I need a course in accent reduction?  Can’t I just learn the ideas in a couple sessions?”

Me – I’m glad you asked.  We usually want our accent reduction clients to take a beginning course of 10 – 15 sessions.  Although some clients benefit from a few lessons, most should take a course of sessions to learn new techniques, have time to practice and receive feedback from their instructor.

You learned your first language when you were 5 – 7 years old.  During that time you practiced and played with the sounds, linking and intonation.  You probably sang songs, recited rhymes and poems, talked to and listened to many different folks, all speaking your first language.  You received feedback from others (adults and children alike) if you were making the sounds and melodies correctly. You had time to practice and perfect your first language, the sounds, linking and intonation.

Years later you learned English. You learned the vocabulary and grammar so you could speak in sentences.  But your kept your sounds, linking and intonation patterns from your first language, and simply laid those on top of English.  So that is why you are speaking with an accent! The more similar your first language is to English, the less noticeable your accent will be.  The less similar your first language is to English, the more noticeable your accent will be and this will make it harder for others to understand you.

It may help you to know EVERYONE speaks with an accent. No matter what language you use….

no matter where you live on the planet….

you speak in the accent of your first, and home, language.

If you want to speak English well, you need to imitate English sounds, linking and intonation, and this takes time, practice and feedback! Here are some activities to support learning the new accent:

  1. Take a course for 10 – 15 lessons from a specially-trained teacher, like a speech-language pathologist.
  2. Record your lessons and play back for further practice.
  3. Befriend an American who is willing to talk with you and let you know about your mistakes.
  4. Watch TV, and listen to radio in English.
  5. Mimic the accent you want to learn.  Mimicry helps your brain to be comfortable in the new accent.

So why can’t this you learn a new accent in a couple lessons?  Because you need time, practice and feedback.









Can I Get Rid of My Accent Completely?

how do I get rid of my accent?First things first – everyone has an accent!  I bet you didn’t realize that.  But it’s true.  You may find when you are learning a new language that your accent gets in the way.  When this happens you begin to think “How can I get rid of my accent?”

The simple answer is “You can’t.”   You can’t get rid of it completely, but you can make your errors seem less noticeable.  That’s where accent modification lessons can help.  With accent modification lessons (also called accent reduction or English pronunciation training) you often work with a speech-language pathologist (SLP) specially trained to teach you how to speak American English like a native speaker.

Your teacher will emphasise correct pronunciation of American English sounds, words stress and sentence stress, linking sounds together in running speech, common reductions, and the melody and intonation patterns that will help you to sound more American.

What’s your part?  You need to spend focused time listening and imitating American English.  One quick way to get a handle on an American English accent is to mimic an American speaking your language.  This is called reverse accent mimicry. Just speak your language the way you may have heard an American speak it – by mimicking an American accent while speaking your language, you will trigger areas of your brain that control speech learning and accent.  Then make these same sounds when speaking American English.  You should see an improvement.

Work one-on-one with an SLP who has been specially trained in accent modification.  The most well-known national certification is Compton’s PESL course (pronouncing English as a Second Language).  An SLP, with a PESL certification, is the best teacher to provide direction and feedback as you learn the expected American English accent.

Try accent reduction books with CDs.  If you are an auditory learner the recordings will be helpful, and if you are a visual learner, read along in the book while you listen. One of my favorite self-study books is Lisa Mojsin’s Mastering the American Accent.

Set a goal for yourself.  You could select one sound.  Many speakers from Asian countries can improve R (made in the back of the mouth) and L (made near the front of the mouth).  Spanish and Persian speakers can improve TH sounds by placing the tongue between the teeth.  Find out your challenging sounds and try to improve them on purpose.

Let friends or co-workers know that you are working on improving your accent.  Many Americans are too polite to correct words someone is pronouncing wrong, but if you let them know you want their feedback, I’m sure they will be happy to provide that.

Good luck with your accent learning,  and keep up the good work!

Roller Coaster English

English Rhythm Intonation StressIf you’re learning English you may notice it’s rhythm and melody are not like your native language (especially true of Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese).

It’s important to learn about expected rhythm, or “perCENT” will sound like “PERson”, and “bamBOO” will sound like “BOMB boo” (just like it did with 2 of my students!)

There are predictable highs and lows in an English sentence. Think of the sentence like a roller coaster.

Many sentences start at a low, quiet pitch and rise when there is a “content word”, usually nouns and verbs or other important words. Learn to give stress to the important words, with longer, louder and higher pitch. The “function words” are not stressed, so they will be low and quiet. English alternates between stressed and unstressed words.

You sentences will be understood if make your rise and fall like Americans. Practice mimicking how Americans speak.

Words With -ity Sound Like -adee

English pronunciation -ity wordsMy Pronunciation students needed some help when pronouncing words with -ity, like ability, quality and hospitality.

None of them knew you are supposed to reduce the /i/ and/t/.  To fully pronounce these sounds will be unusual for the listener, who is expecting a sound more like -adee, instead of itee.  Make the /i/ sound like the “uh” or schwa.  Make the /t/ sound like a /d/.

Also in these multi-syllabic words, you’ll want to stress the syllable right before the -adee.

Practice list of words here.

Keep up the good work speaking English!