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Lessons from an accent reduction coach!

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about-ester“Hot vs hat”: Hear and pronounce unfamiliar sounds using contrasting words for accent reduction

It’s been nearly two decades since I began working with accented speakers and improving their ability to be understood. My first trainees worked  at a Miami digital imaging company whose owner offered accent reduction lessons to his employees. Three staff members took him up on the offer. Margarita who worked in collections; Victor and Eddy in the accounting department. Margarita had experienced put-downs from some of the customers she would phone. Because her speech was heavily accented, customers would ask to speak with someone else or feign they could not understand her. Victor and Eddy were required to report to management about financial data. Their oral reports were often difficult to understand and as a result confusing.

All speech requires energy or breath from the lungs that is then formed by moving parts called articulators: the lips, gum ridge, tongue, jaw, soft palate, hard palate, nose, and vocal chords. Speakers use these articulators to form vowels and consonant sounds. When air is obstructed either partially or completely, consonants are spoken and when the air flows freely out of the mouth vowels are spoken.

Their accented speech was the result of forming English sounds with Spanish articulation systems or rather substituting Spanish vowels and consonants for English ones. English has 24 consonant and 15 vowel sounds; Spanish has 5 vowels and 18 consonant sounds.

Some of the difficulty  they had was not being able to discriminate between sounds they were unfamiliar with. One way to increase the ability to hear and pronounce unfamiliar sounds is to use “minimal pairs” — a series of words that differ by only one sound such as “hot” vs. “hat.” By contrasting the familiar Spanish vowel sound in “hot” /ɑ/ with the English vowel sound in “hat” /æ/, you contrast a Spanish vowel against an English vowel. The vowel sound /a / exists in English, but the vowel sound /æ/ does not exist in Spanish.

Here are more minimal pair sound contrasts for vowel sounds: /a/ and /æ/*:

/a/ /æ/

cot cat; hot hat; pot pat; rot rat

*These are the International Phonetic Alphabet Symbols for sounds.

Margarita, Victor and Jorge, practiced contrasting new sounds with familiar sounds. Our work together consisted of just as much practice in listening for sounds as learning to use speech articulators to produce the sounds. If a speaker has difficulty perceiving a sound as distinct (such as hearing the contrast between the vowels in “cot” vs. “cat”) then it’s difficult to articulate the contrast. Using minimal pairs increases auditory discrimination (listening) and enhances the production of vowel and consonant contrasts.

As this was my first group of trainees, I learned as they did. My graduate phonetics and phonology studies had prepared me well for the personal and almost clinical aspect of adjusting a client’s speaking patterns by instructing them where to place their tongue, how far to protrude the tongue tip through the teeth and when to round their lips.

So we set out to recite, repeat, drill, and listen for sound contrasts using minimal pairs like “cot” vs. “cat” or “cup” vs. “cap.” We focused on accent reduction to develop better pronunciation habits and listening skills. The work and repetition conditions the brain and develops muscle memory  required to control the  speech articulators  until it becomes a speech habit.

Learning often requires a variety of processes not just saying and hearing the sound, but  feeling the articulators  and looking into a mirror to see what the pronunciation should look like. We use vocabulary that is relevant to their jobs, have relaxed conversation and make note of each other’s improved pronunciation. Another pair of sounds that Spanish speakers might find difficult to contrast are:

/s/ vs. /z/

Sue zoo; face phase; race raise; bus buzz; ice eyes

Sound contrasts for sounds:

/p/ vs. /b/ vs. /f/ vs. /v/

pat bat; fat vat; pail bail; fail veil; pan ban; fan van; Perry berry; ferry very; pays bays; phase vase

Sound contrast for the vowel sound:

/u/ vs. /ʊ/

Luke look; kook cook; pool pul;l nuke nook

While minimal pair practice helps distinguish the sounds of English from Spanish, it also revealed that pronouncing a word with a different vowel could lead to an unexpected outcome — like asking if the coffee is “hot” and having someone hand you a “hat” or asking someone if a “cab” is available and having them hand you a bottle “cap.” Mispronunciations lead to slowing down of communication and confusion on the part of the listener and as well as fruitless requests. But the greatest benefit to Margarita, Victor and Eddy was to raise their self confidence when speaking English. Learning how to form the sounds of English helped them stop guessing whether their pronunciation was correct or not. By incorporating their practice sessions into daily use, they were easier to understand and more successful communicating with others. Knowledge and experience gained through practice paved the road to reduced stress at work, and clear communication.

Languages and their speakers have always fascinated me — from the Latin, French, and Spanish I studied in high school to the English varieties spoken in Brooklyn, Boston and the U.S. south. Having heard Spanish first from my parents and then their accented speech. I wondered, “Why can’t other people couldn’t understand them like I can?” In grad school, I learned how to take languages apart and make sense of why they sounded like they did, like the guttural /r/ in the French “coeur,” the tongue-tripping triphthongs in the Spanish “situeis,” and the higher and lower pitch levels in English “Mississippi” that glide up and down with longer vowels. Intrigued by the sounds of different languages and armed with a newly minted masters degree in Linguistics, I set out to use the knowledge I had and work with speakers of other languages.

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