accent-reduction-what

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.

Position

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:

vowel-positions

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.

Length

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.

Common Errors

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.

vowel-grids

Sound Selection

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).

Place

English is highly concentrated at the front of the mouth with a lot of sounds made on the alveolar ridge, behind the teeth.

consonant-positions

Type

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].

Voicing

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.

Common Errors

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].

iii) Stress

Stress involves placing emphasis on certain syllables and leaving others weak.

Stress Production

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.

Stress Selection

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.

Weak Vowels

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.

Common Errors

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.

iv) Tone

Tone is the pitch and direction of our voice as we speak.

Tone Production

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 /

Tone Selection

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.

Common Errors

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.

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By | 2017-09-22T09:42:42+00:00 September 12th, 2016|Accent Reduction|16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. George Simons September 13, 2016 at 9:06 am - Reply

    Hello Joseph,
    I was surprised to find this in my inbox today, not because I don’t get such mail unexpectedly, but because I thought that the term “accent reduction” had been trashed a long time ago in favor of “accent acquisition”. I actually favored the change strongly because the former was usually received with a sense of “There something wrong with me that I have to fix,” while the latter focused on my ability to learn and use of something new and broaden my capabilities. Being heavily engaged in the intercultural field, I find a lot of the work there is also done from a perspective of coping with one’s habits rather than empowering folks to acquire new ones. In my work I frequently use improvisational theater techniques to free people up to try new behaviors and acquire new capabilities. Anyway that’s my tuppence worth. Yours is important work, and I wish you all the best with it.

    • Joseph Hudson September 15, 2016 at 7:21 am - Reply

      Thanks for the comment George, I certainly agree that the terminology is not ideal, but the concept of ‘reduction’ rather than ‘acquisition’ has its benefits: firstly, it does not suggest that the aim is to adopt an entirely new accent, which would be quite strange and unattainable for a lot of learners. Secondly, it suggests that we are working with an inherent system from a learner’s first language, which is right – through understanding the phonology of the mother tongue, a learner can make their speech clearer in English. I think ‘Accent Acquisition’ is the ideal term for those aiming to speak a particular English accent perfectly regardless of their particular language background, which involves a different approach. The terms are often used interchangeably in any case, so learners may not make much distinction between them.

      • Christina February 19, 2017 at 10:38 am - Reply

        Hi Joseph, I am going to repeat myself and state again that I love your articles. I tend to look through the past ones, while waiting for a new one. The term ‘Accent Reduction’ does not seem offensive to me at all. I would love to reduce my accent, not because I see anything wrong with various accents, but because it is my personal preference to be able to speak in a more neutral way. This was they way my family and I used to speak in my native language, but not any more after many years of living in the UK. I’ve been thinking of coming to the studio for some lessons for a while now, but my work schedule makes it difficult. I will do so eventually. Thank you!

    • Xxx November 27, 2016 at 10:19 pm - Reply

      Finally I read something good about accents. It should be adquisition as people can be quite happy with their own accents speaking foreign languages. People should realise it is a second language thus you keep ur accent slightly different from
      Native speakers. Good comment. Completely agree.

  2. Gandha Key September 13, 2016 at 11:19 am - Reply

    I played the Spanish/English audio from this website to my Spanish student yesterday – we found it very useful and will be working on aspects of it during our future lessons. We liked the way you could hear first the Spanish speaker and then the English – it really helped to show the marked differences in pronunciation.

    • Joseph Hudson September 15, 2016 at 7:23 am - Reply

      Hi Gandha, thanks – I’m really glad the resource was useful!

  3. Isabel Bekircan September 14, 2016 at 4:01 pm - Reply

    Very helpful article. Thank you!

    • Joseph Hudson September 15, 2016 at 7:24 am - Reply

      Thanks Isabel.

  4. lucho lopz September 15, 2016 at 2:23 am - Reply

    It really helped me a lot.

    • Joseph Hudson September 15, 2016 at 7:25 am - Reply

      Thanks Lucho, I’m glad it helped!

  5. Liliya Ward September 26, 2016 at 8:20 am - Reply

    Hi Joseph, being a former university lecturer in Phonetics I know all this stuff about English vowels and consonants and can teach others which I used to do when lived in Russia. The annoying thing is that I still have an accent even if people say it is good and it is difficult to place it somewhere and it is quite a skill. I wonder what I need to speak English with no accent at all!

    • Joseph Hudson September 30, 2016 at 12:12 pm - Reply

      Hi Liliya, I guess it depends on what you call ‘no accent’ – if you mean within the range of a standard GB accent, then it would involve highlighting any areas of sounds and intonation in which you speak outside of the GB model. I would need to hear you in order to comment on that, so feel free to send a recording of yourself to us at info@pronunciationstudio.com or come in for an individual assessment class: https://pronunciationstudio.com/assessment/ for detailed feedback.

  6. Samuel Del Valle October 12, 2016 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Amazing Article….I am passionate about learning languages. I try to learn something new in English everyday, however, a good clean confident pronunciation is lacking. My pronunciation was much better years ago and it has now somehow dwindled.

    I wish I had the budget to pay for these courses.

    Great material.

    • Joseph Hudson October 17, 2016 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Thanks Samuel, I’m glad it’s useful. Pronunciation is a physical skill that needs constant practice to maintain its level – a bit like playing a musical instrument, so I think it can dwindle if not used.

      Keep an eye out for special offers and vouchers – they’re always announced first in the newsletter: https://pronunciationstudio.com/newsletter/

  7. Venise October 16, 2016 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Hi Joseph! I’m very glad finding so much common in our attitude towards speech. I am a lecturer at university. My opinion is , if someone wants to achieve correct English pronunciation it’s very important after right pronunciation of sounds, to learn reduced forms of words, intonation. For ESL all these are very difficult, because their mother tongue has nothing common with the language they learn.As to me , knowing all these helped me to get nice speech without accent of my Azeri language. For me Standard English pronunciation, British English is the only one goal in teaching English. I’m very glad of getting chance to read your page. It’s very useful.

    • Joseph Hudson October 17, 2016 at 11:35 am - Reply

      Thanks Venise. I think it would help a lot if pronunciation and intonation were introduced earlier on ESL courses – not only is it highly useful for clear speech, it’s also fun and interesting in class. I’m glad to hear you’ve achieved a high level in your speech!

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