Learning English is hard. You study the rules, and then you have to learn the exceptions to those rules. And after you study the grammar and memorize the vocabulary, you travel to an English-speaking country and someone mentions your… Accent?
Huh? At home, no one commented on any accent. It was impressive enough to know the language. Now, you find out that there is an entirely new challenge that affects how people perceive your competence and professionalism. In some cases, it can even cost you a job.
As frustrating as this is, there are techniques that non-native English speakers can use to reduce their accent. By incorporating a few additional exercises as you learn English conversation you can improve your clarity and pronunciation while speaking the language.
Focus on clarity, not accent elimination
But first… When you learn English, your focus should be to speak clearly, not to get rid of your accent.
Your accent itself is not a bad thing. Your accent represents your culture and heritage. Even more impressive, it’s a sign that you speak more than one language! Moreover, there are countless accents even among native English speakers. In fact, we all have an accent.
Yes, linguistic bias is a thing, but the goal is to improve communication so that your colleagues, customers, and friends always understand the important things you have to say.
Scroll up and click play to listen to a story about accent reduction and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Spoiler: his heavy accent turned out to be his best asset.
Slow down and enunciate your words
We tend to speed up when we have a lot to say or we are excited about our ideas. If you have an accent, speaking quickly can emphasize your accent and make it difficult for people to understand what you are saying. Take your time, speak slowly, and enunciate each word. It may be a little irritating, but it will help others understand your fantastic ideas.
Listen to some of the greatest speeches on YouTube for inspiration on how to slow down and enunciate your ideas. Pay special attention to their speech patterns and intonation.
Listen to an audiobook while reading the book
While learning English, it is helpful to hear how a word is pronounced at the same time you learn how a word is spelled. When you buy a book, download the ebook as well and listen to it while you read. This will help you learn the correct pronunciation of words before the wrong pronunciation gets stuck in your head. A cheaper alternative is to borrow the book and accompanying ebook from the library. Most city libraries offer a wide selection of audiobooks.
You can buy audiobooks directly from your phone through iTunes and Google Play.
Feel the rhythm while you learn English
Practicing pronunciation is an important component of accent reduction, but it is not the only component. Rhythm is an underrated, but key part of sounding like a native English speaker. Watch movies and mimic how the actors are speaking. Pay special attention to which words they stress in a sentence. Typically, you should stress the most important parts of a sentence, rather than stressing every word.
For more specific instruction, you can find English language rhythm tutorials on YouTube that provide examples of sentences said with and without the appropriate rhythm.
Read to yourself as you learn English
Combine the enunciation advice, the rhythm advice, and the reading advice by reading out loud to yourself. It may feel like you are talking to yourself, but it is an excellent way to practice moving your mouth the way native English speakers do. Do not rush. Read slowly as if giving a speech. This will also help you familiarize yourself with how you sound in English and help you overcome any self-consciousness you feel about speaking out loud at work.
Check out your city’s library (New York Public Library, Los Angeles Public Library) network for your favorite genre.
Perfect your pronunciation of “Th-”
One of the sounds you will use very often while speaking English is “th-”. It’s two out of three letters in one of the most common words – we even used it in this sentence! Mispronouncing the “th-” sound is an easy marker to identify a non-native English speaker. Practicing your pronunciation of this English sound can significantly reduce your accent.
A quick way to improve your pronunciation is holding your tongue between your teeth long enough while saying “th-” before moving on to the next sound. Non-native English speakers tend to pull their tongue back into their mouth too quickly while saying this sound. By applying this tip, you’ll notice a big difference when using words like “the”, “through”, and “think”, for example.
Check out this excellent video tutorial on how to pronounce the “th-” sound:
Record yourself speaking
Learn to love the sound of your own voice. Record yourself speaking from the start of your accent reduction activities, so you can hear how the clarity of your words changes over time as you apply accent reduction techniques. This also combines several of your practice activities like reading out loud or focusing on specific sounds.
Use the Voice Memo app on your phone to get started or download a free one from the App Store or Google Play store.
Give a colleague permission to correct your pronunciation
Receiving feedback is one of the best ways to learn. That said, in North American culture it is considered rude to give unsolicited feedback. Let a trusted, respectful colleague know that you would like them to correct you if you pronounce words incorrectly. Be mindful of the fact that some colleagues may not be comfortable doing this. If they are, this can be an excellent way to quickly learn how to pronounce words you regularly use in a professional setting and gain feedback on where you sometimes lack clarity.
Hire a language tutor or coach
Consider working with an accent reduction coach or hiring an English language learning tutor who specializes in pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm. While this is an expensive option, it is a way to fast-track your accent-reduction efforts. Talaera can help you find the right instructor. Find out more about Talaera’s business English programs here.
Stay positive and persistent!
Practice makes perfect. Stay persistent, but also remain positive. Be your own biggest supporter and stay away from negative thinking about your language skills or abilities. The fact that you have taught yourself English is an admirable trait. You have already completed 90 percent of the work. Focus on clarity – not elimination – and you will be confidently running meetings and presenting pitch decks before you know it.
Take your professional English communication skills to the next level with Talaera. Join one of our free webinars and read more about our English programs, for yourself or for your teams.
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Note: This article was originally posted on Nov 12, 2018. It was recently updated with the podcast episode and video.