What is ‘Accent Reduction’?
It’s designed to make second language speakers’ English clearer and reduce the influence of a mother tongue, but what does Accent Reduction actually involve and why is it called ‘reduction’?
4 Areas of Study
Studying accent reduction involves learning the sounds and intonation of the target language. This is split into 4 parts: vowel sounds, consonant sounds, stress and tone. In this article we will see each part, what is involved and common problems for learners.
i) Vowel Sounds
A vowel sound is the release of voice through a shape in the mouth. GB English uses 12 shapes, which combine to form 19 sounds.
When we produce a vowel sound, we place the lips, jaw and tongue in a specific position:
– the lips can be rounded or unrounded,
– the jaw anywhere between closed and open,
– the tongue towards the front or back of the mouth.
The 12 GB English positions /i, ɪ, e, æ, ə, ɜ, ʌ, ɑ, u, ʊ, ɔ, ɒ/ are shown in the diagrams below:
English also contains 7 diphthongs (double vowels) which move from one of these positions to another: /eɪ, ɔɪ, aɪ, əʊ, aʊ, ɪə, eə/, though many regional English accents do not include all of these.
Some vowel sounds have a tendency to be longer than others, shown by two dots /ː/, though the actual length of any vowel sound can change in connected speech. Compare FEED to FEET, and ↘YES to ↘↗YES and you will hear a big difference in length, even though the same sound is used in each pair. No matter how long you make the word SHIP, it will never become a SHEEP. For this reason it is essential for learners to master the positions of the sounds, rather than focussing only on their length.
Learners will normally import the vowel sounds from their first language, so this holds the key to individual errors. The most typical errors are where a learner pronounces the same sound where there should be two or three different ones. Try the following word groups, every vowel position should be different:
HIT / HEAT (ɪ/iː)
HUT / HAT / HEART (ʌ/æ/ɑː)
COULD / COOED (ʊ/uː)
BED / BAD (e/æ)
SHORT / SHOT (ɔː/ɒ)
Many languages do not contain central vowels, so /ə, ɜ, ʌ, ɑ/ often cause particular problems. Some examples of different language vowel maps are shown below, you can find yours by searching online for the phonology of your mother tongue.
The 19 vowel sounds of English are spelt using a Latin alphabet of just 5 vowel letters: a, e, i, o and u – an impossible task. This has led to many strange variations entering English spelling over the centuries, the letter ‘a’, for example, could produce up to 8 different vowel sounds:
/æ/ in HAT
/ɒ/ in WHAT
/ɔː/ in LAW
/ɑː/ in CAR
/eɪ/ in PAY
/eə/ in RARE
/ə/ in ABOUT
/ɪ/ in COTTAGE
Learners with a phonetically written first language are often tempted to read English aloud, causing mispronunciations, so learning sound selection is an essential area of accent reduction.
By using spelling to sound rules, it is possible to predict the correct vowel sound in most cases, but any exceptions need to be learnt, and this being English, there are always exceptions – look no further than the poem “The Chaos”, which appeared in a 1920s book called “Drop Your Foreign Accent” and contains roughly 800 English spelling irregularities (full version here):
“Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.”
Don’t be disheartened though, this poem is like an English accident blackspot – the vast majority of sounds are actually predictable with rules.
ii) Consonant Sounds
A consonant sound involves stopping the flow of air as it leaves the body.
There are three key aspects to producing a consonant sound:
i) Where we stop the air (PLACE);
ii) How we stop the air (TYPE);
iii) If we use the voice (VOICING).
English is highly concentrated at the front of the mouth with a lot of sounds made on the alveolar ridge, behind the teeth.
GB English uses 6 types of sound:
plosives, which fully stop the air, like /p/ and /d/;
fricatives which squeeze the air, like /s/ and /ð/;
affricates, which fully stop then squeeze the air, /tʃ, dʒ/
nasals which are released through the nose, like /n/ and /ŋ/;
approximants, which don’t fully block the air, like /r/ and /w/;
lateral approximants, which are released down the sides of the tongue, /l/ and [ɫ].
As we speak, the voice constantly turns on and off – some consonants are pronounced only with air, others with vibration. Compare the sound /s/ with /z/ – the place (alveolar) and type (fricative) are the same, but /z/ uses voice, /s/ does not.
Errors in consonant sounds normally fall into 3 categories:
i) Sounds that do not exist in a student’s first language.
Many students do not have the two ‘th’ sounds found in English – /θ/ and /ð/, others may lack a /w, b, f, ʃ/ to name a few, it entirely depends on the mother tongue. Learners will normally replace the sound with the nearest one in their language, so a ‘th’ may be mispronounced as /s,z,t,d/.
ii) Sounds which exist in the student’s first language but are pronounced differently in English.
Many languages have an ‘r’ sound. but the place and/or type is often different to English (see /r/ – the Strangest Sound?)
iii) Sounds that are subtly different in the learner’s first language.
Many languages have a voiceless, bilabial, plosive /p/ sound, but not many languages aspirate the /p/ before vowel sounds, a subtle but important difference in English – listen to the word PARK: unaspirated [pɑːk] & aspirated [pʰɑːk].
Stress involves placing emphasis on certain syllables and leaving others weak.
When we stress a sound in English, we do 3 things at the same time:
i) we increase the volume,
ii) we change the pitch, and
iii) we lengthen the vowel sound.
So you can hear in this sentence, I am doing this in every clause, normally towards the end.
Choosing where to place stress is an essential skill for all learners. If the stress is in the wrong part of a word or unit, it can easily be misunderstood or unclear, each of these 4 syllable words has the main stress on a different syllable (marked /ˈ/):
ˈescalator, biˈnoculars, elecˈtrician, overaˈchieve
Stress also needs to be applied in sentences, which are broken into units of speech. Where you choose to stress will depend on both the meaning and structure of the phrase. Normally we stress the last important word in any unit, a simple, but often neglected aspect of learning spoken English. Compare the 4 different stress patterns used in this unit:
are you from Germany
Notice that only one syllable can be the main stress in each version.
Ovər half əf vowel sounds ɪn Englɪsh ə weak /ə,ɪ,i,u/, thɪs ɪs thə lowɪst levəl əf stress wi cən prəduce. əf these, thə trickiɪst sound ɪs thə schwa /ə/ bɪcause ɪt cən bi spelt əs ani əf thə five writtən vowels, ənd ɪs prənounced wɪth ə neutrəl mouth pəsitən.
Learners often import the stress patterns and rules from their first language, which causes misplaced stress in words and sentences. Those who speak syllable-timed languages (where every syllable is stressed) often do this in English, so need to master the weak/strong structure of English stress-time.
Students who speak in a relatively flat monotone can learn to overcome this by mastering the 5 levels of English stress and how to place more emphasis using pitch, volume and length. Those who speak too fast or without pauses and constantly run out of breath, can learn to break their speech into clear and easy to manage tone units.
Tone is the pitch and direction of our voice as we speak.
English uses 3 intonation patterns and every unit of speech uses one of these patterns, compare:
i) it’s ↘good ii) it’s ↘↗good iii) it’s ↗good
/ the ↘↗intonation pattern | starts on the tonic ↗syllable | and continues to the end of the ↘unit || English is ↘↗also notable | for a wide ↘pitch range | but only in specific ↘parts of a unit /
Choosing the correct tone is based on meaning, attitude and context. Very generally a falling tone ↘ is complete and sincere; a fall-rising tone ↘↗ is incomplete and implicational; a rising tone ↗ is repetitive and friendly.
There are some places in intonation where the tone will directly change the meaning, but more often the tone will show the speaker’s attitude, and since this is a very personal aspect to speaking, rules do not always apply. The aim in accent reduction is to explore the full range of English intonation so that the learner is able to both hear and reproduce it.
Learners often incorporate the tones from their first language, so some English tones may seem strange, like a falling tone on a question. Now, where ↘was I?
The wide pitch range in English can seem ridiculous or unnatural to learners, which may cause them to sound bored or uninterested. Of the four skills covered in this article, tone is the most abstract and normally the last area that students master in accent reduction.
Why ‘Accent Reduction‘?
The term ‘Accent Reduction’ can seem strange and even offensive to some. “Accents are great!” and “Why would you want to change the way you sound?” some say. But the reality is that many even very advanced learners of English are not clearly understood or confident in their spoken English because their level of pronunciation and intonation does not match their other English skills. It is nearly always the mother tongue that is influencing these areas of speech, so that is why we can categorise it into ‘accents’ – each one displaying certain sets of sounds and intonation.
Most learners on these courses are aiming for clear, expressive English speech, to avoid becoming tongue tied or being misunderstood. This is not then about the acquisition of an entirely new accent, or emulating the Queen, it is about reducing, rather than entirely eliminating, the influence of a mother tongue. In the classroom, this involves highlighting the areas where the first language is causing errors, and subsequently studying, practising and mastering the 4 areas covered in this article.