We learn in more than one dimension: foreground and background
Every one of our accent reduction students knows that practicing and repeating exercises is important. This is the obvious thing we do when want to get good at anything.
Actively trying to learn something is only one side of the picture. I call it the “foreground” side of learning. This is what’s engaged when we’re actively practicing something. In the foreground phase, we are trying out new material, drilling, and reviewing.
The background side is the learning that takes place behind the scenes, at the unconscious level.
We learn best when we have both approaches working together, in tandem.
Many different types of professionals are familiar with hard work.
A musician working on a technically-difficult section of music often has to play the passage hundreds, even thousands of times, to get it to feel and sound fluent. This is why many music students traditionally practice six or more hours a day.
Professional TV broadcasters need years of training and experience to look and sound as polished and authoritative as they do.
The same applies to sports. My tennis forehead used to be horrible. Since I’ve started playing, I have probably drilled 50,000 forehands during 500 lessons. When I try to recreate the stroke, there is no guarantee it will work. Sometimes I simply cannot do what the coach is showing me.
Our accent reduction students usually have several things in common.
Here are typical things our students do during their home accent training practice:
- They work on their exercises frequently – often daily
- They repeat their target sounds, words, and phrases many times
- They pay close attention to what they’re feeling and hearing during practice
- They review previous lessons to better internalize what they’re working on
- They have a basic intellectual understanding of how the science of speech and voice works
- They are open to a sense of exploration and don’t mind “messing up”
These actions are all part of the “foreground” side of practicing.
But there are subtle things happening behind the scenes.
There often comes a moment after we’ve put in the practice time – when we’re not even trying – and something clicks. This is a sign that the background side of learning is kicking in.
Every time you consciously notice some specific feature of someone’s speech pattern or accent, a connection is being made in your brain.
Every time you pause your practice (and stop trying), the brain is continuing to make connections and synthesize what it’s been shown. Independent of our conscious efforts, the brain is taking us to the next level.
And then one day you might decide to turn on a movie and start imitating one of your favorite characters, and realize “Hey, I couldn’t do that last time… that just sounded pretty good!”
Or you just might start feeling less self-conscious at social gatherings, because no one is asking you to repeat yourself.
Even though our brain has its own timeline, there are ways to invite faster progress.
I studied classical piano since I was 12. Despite everything I tried on my own, I sometimes could not solve a particular technical or musical problem.
So I would go to my lesson, where my teacher Sophia would have me do some pretty wild things to try to solve the issue. For example, she would have me “splash” the section on the keyboard. (“Splashing” is a term Sophia created, where the student plays the music as clusters of keys with the right feel and rhythm, but with all the wrong notes.)
Or she would have me play with my hands crossed, or blindfolded.
Very often, after trying out one of her “gadgets”, I could suddenly play the passage correctly and effortlessly. (My fellow students and I sometimes called Sophia a “white witch”, but in truth she just understood how to trick our brains into learning.)
The process of allowing a skill to emerge is the background side of learning.
Learning in the background is what happens when we stop making it happen and instead allow for something to change. It’s like cooking a pot of soup. Half of the process is watching it simmer on the back burner. You can’t rush it.
Suggestions for learning accent reduction in the background
Here are some tips for engaging with the background side of learning while reducing your accent and improving your American pronunciation:
- Expose yourself to a variety of American speakers. The U.S. is filled with regional accents. Sometimes you may find yourself relating more easily to (for example) a Southern rather than a “Standard American” accent.
- If you and your spouse are both trying to improve your English but only speak in your native language to each other, designate one hour a week for English-only conversation.
- Consider joining an online speaking group (e.g. Toastmasters, Meetup) to give yourself more opportunities to speak and get comfortable with English.
- Listen to American podcasts and radio shows. Challenge yourself now and then by turning off your TV’s closed captioning.
- If you are in a public space, secretly listen in (“eavesdrop”) on the conversations going on around you. Choose a pronunciation or intonation feature and track how the speaker is doing.
- Imitate! studies have shown that mimicking can be a game changer for learning an accent. Imitation is a holistic approach to explore and play around with an accent. It’s a fun, top-down way to pull everything you know together. (Note: it’s important to imitate not only what you hear, but also what you see: sometimes a certain facial expression or movement in the shoulders can spontaneously change the way you are pronouncing something.)
- Practice your accent homework in different physical environments (sitting, standing, walking, indoors, outdoors) and try out what you’re working on with different emotions (neutral, sad, angry, enthusiastic).
- Sing along with American music that you like. Sing a line, then turn off the track and speak the line.
- Take your time – sense what’s happening in your mouth. Listen to how a sound changes when you move your tongue or jaw a tiny bit. Practice in slow motion, like you’re putting your work under a microscope. Remember how we learned things as children? It was easy… partly because we were fully present and engaged.