How do you make an accent sound authentic? Yes, there’s pronunciation work: for the Standard American accent, it’s about getting the TH’s and getting the r-coloring on the vowels in er, or, air. And then there’s the “music”, or prosody: the timing, the ups and downs of the speech melody (intonation), and the interplay of stress and non-stress that is so critical to the American accent.
But pronunciation and prosody alone are not enough to pull off an accent. You’ve got to have the “oral posture”. The shape of the inside of the mouth and throat, and the home base where the vowels and consonants of that language comfortably hang out, is what’s behind the color of the accent.
Think of a violin and a cello. They are both made of wood and have strings. They are both bowed. But the sound is completely different. Just like the materials used to build a musical instrument and the proportions and geography of its parts determine that instrument’s color (timbre), the “build” and shape of our mouth and throat determine the sound that comes out. Which is all about the muscles we are contracting and relaxing, or not.
Whenever you speak with a convincing accent, you probably have hit on the correct oral posture for that accent. If you speak more than one language well, you can get a feel for the differences in the oral postures of those accents. For example, French has a lot more nasal resonance and contraction of the soft palate than does English or German. British English has a more forward focus than American English, with a more animated tongue tip and jaw. American English feels, in comparison to most other accents, relaxed. The lips, chin, cheeks, palate, and throat muscles hardly contract at all. The center of vibration of the sound feels like it’s in the mid-back of the mouth, with the lips gently rounding and un-rounding, and the jaw subtly shifting up, down, and side to side. But ever so slightly. And with lots of SPACE.
Improving oral posture also makes it easier to learn the phonemes (sounds) of an accent, because you are working from the “center of gravity” for that accent.
Students at AccentsOff find oral posture work to be fulfilling and fascinating. Learning to make that physical shift can be a game-changer.
Here is a recording of a student who worked for 15 sessions on reducing his Russian accent while maintaining his posh British edge. The first section is from Lesson 1 and the second is from Lesson 15. He took beautifully to the oral posture exercises: