In the world of online language learning, have you come across the field of “accent reduction” and “accent reduction trainers”? When I see this I’m concerned about false advertising on the one hand and false hopes on the other. The notion of “accent” is extremely subjective. Most of the English learners I spend time with have what many might consider a “French” accent, but although there are some common features in the sounds of their speech, there are as many “French” accents as there are students. Which “French” accent are we referring to? Furthermore, is it necessarily a “bad” thing to have French-sounding English (or German, Chinese, Hispanic…)? A French accent may grate on the ears of another French English-speaker, but to native English speakers it can sound exotic and sophisticated.
Rather than talking about “accent” it is more helpful to distinguish between clear and unclear pronunciation. Often it is not “accent reduction” that is required, but rather training in how to produce sounds that do not occur in the learner’s L1 (native language) and how to speak with English-sounding intonation. The latter is certainly more difficult to achieve.
Taking the example of French learners (the example I know best), it is not usually mistakes in pronunciation that hinders communication, but rather unusual intonation. French and English intonation are very different, and I find this one of the hardest areas in which to help learners. French speech is timed by its syllables – every syllable has the same value (think machine gun). English, rather, is timed by stress: the rhythm of words is determined by the stressed syllable, and the rhythm of a sentence by the words that are emphasised (think Morse code). Native English speakers are good at adapting to non-standard pronunciation because of the huge variety in world English. But we are not so good at adapting to differences in intonation. Try saying an English sentence giving every syllable the same value and not stressing any particular words. The result is likely to be unintelligible.
This is where shadow-reading comes in as a useful technique for intonation and pronunciation training. Not every learner catches on to the value of this immediately as it seems counter-intuitive, but once you “get” it, it’s almost guaranteed to improve your speaking if it is done regularly.
Prerequisite: learners need to be good at sourcing audio material on the Internet on subjects that interest them, downloading podcasts, and need to have regular listening integrated into their language-learning programme. This is a must for students anyway, and the possibilities are endless. To get you started:
Talk About English (BBC Learning English)
Audio material with transcripts works best, and monologues (talks, reports etc.) work better than dialogues (conversations, interviews etc.). The speech should be somewhat slower than normal conversational speed, but not unnaturally slow.
The lower the level, the more assistance the learner will need to source appropriate materials. It is not essential that the learner master all the vocabulary in the material, however, the more they understand, the more motivating the activity.
There are two ways of approaching shadow-reading.
1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.
2. Listen again and this time try to highlight or underline the stressed words in each sentence, and any pronunciation that is unexpected.
3. Play again and this time read along with the speaker, trying as much as possible to mimic their intonation.
4. Finally, practice reading the text aloud without the audio. Ask a trainer for comments if you have one available.
5. (Optional) Record your reading of the text using Audacity. As a follow up activity you can then listen to your own voice, and then the original audio, and note any differences you hear.
Without script (for more advanced learners).
1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.
2. Replay the audio and this time, speaking aloud, try to “shadow” the speech by repeating what is said immediately after you hear it, trying to mimic the speaker’s intonation.
3. Repeat the activity until you can shadow the whole article without missing words (you may need to check the script for any unknown words).
4. (Optional). You can easily turn this into a writing or speaking activity. After you have listened a few times, rewrite the speech in your own words according to what you remember, OR practice giving the speech in your own words without any support from the text. This can be recorded using Audacity, and played back to your teacher/trainer or a native speaker for comments.
These activities don’t have to be done with a trainer (doing myself out of a job here!) However, one disadvantage of doing it alone is that we don’t always notice our own pronunciation or intonation errors, especially if they are bad habits that we have developed over time. Live online language training gives you this opportunity, in your own time, and without having to leave your home. Contact us for more details.
Anyone who has had to learn English as a second language knows how irregular and complex English spelling can be. Unlike other languages English has never had any kind of regulating authority and attempts to reform spelling have usually met with failure. Even amongst native speakers it is not uncommon for well-educated native speakers to have poor spelling.
One of the amusing side-effects of the chaos of English orthography is the number of poems that have been written to illustrate the many alternative spellings of different sounds. The following poem has made the rounds of school English text-books since the 1960s:
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead –
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!
Quoted by Vivian Cook and Melvin Bragg 2004,
by Richard Krogh, in D Bolinger & D A Sears, Aspects of Language, 1981,
and in Spelling Progress Bulletin March 1961, Brush up on your English.
What do you think – should English spelling be simplified? Would it ever work? The Spelling Society thinks so, and you can find several more poems like the one above on their site.
I rather like the irregularity of English spelling. Strange spelling often has something to say about the history of a word, where it came from, under what circumstances it was borrowed into the language. Memorising irregular spelling is good mental training for children, and helps with learning other languages. Without it there would be no Spelling Bees and no poems like the one above.
Using these poems for language learning: as a teacher
Create a gap fill dication where you blank out the words containing the particular irregular spellings that you want to focus on. Read the poem aloud and have learners fill in the blanks. Check the answers together.
OR make a recording of your own voice reading the poem (I would use Audacity). Then have learners make their own recording, and have them compare the two. They should highlight those words that they got wrong. This can be done using a language lab or as an asynchronous online activity.
…or as a learner
Read the poems aloud, and each time you see a word you are not sure of, underline it. Then use an audio dictionary to check the pronunciation. For this you could try WordReference or The Free Dictionary.
For more resources to help with English spelling:
Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction (4th Edition) (Words Their Way Series)
How to Spell Like a Champ