I just got back from a long tennis lesson, where my coach was drilling the “posture of the serve”. The serve in tennis is an incredibly complex sequence of timed movements, and players work on perfecting it for years. The posture Joe was talking about has to do with rotation, an extreme upper body and hip twisting starting from where you toss the ball to how you contact the ball to the end of the follow-through. But that’s not all. The posture of the serve also requires: a. the knees being quite bent b. the hip pointing out into the court as you’re preparing to strike the ball, c. the movement forward into the court at the end of the serve. (Am I forgetting anything?)
The takeaway was this: get this complex posture to feel natural and you’ve got your vehicle for the serve. The serve pretty much takes care of itself if the physical posture is set up right. The tiniest adjustment of any of those postural features sometimes makes the difference between hitting the ball into the net and stinging an ace down the center of the court.
Learning an accent (let’s take American English) is similar. Yes, there’s pronunciation work: changing your D’s to 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 POSTURE. In the case of accents, it’s called the “oral posture”. The shape of the inside of the mouth and throat, and the home base where the vowels and consonant 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, 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 right in the middle of the mouth, with the tongue lightly flitting toward the palate and throat, the lips gently rounding and un-rounding, and the jaw subtly shifting up, down, and side to side. But ever so slightly.
If you want to improve your American accent, start here. Work on words that have the schwa, UH, IH, and EH vowels. These are our most relaxed vowels. “Doug was stuck in a company selling onions”. “Milton Piston is a millionaire who lives on 66th, right off 5th”. Get a feel for a totally relaxed container that surrounds the speech. Keep the contacts for T, P, and K as relaxed as possible. Pretend that you went to the dentist and he missed, injecting Novocaine into your lips, chin, and cheeks. Try to speak with that sensation, and you might find the pronunciation of American sounds just starts to happen, a little more easily than before.
You just might find, as I do when I occasionally generate a super-human serve (always with the “where did that come from??!” feeling of awe), that for a moment here and there, you suddenly sound a little like that American actress whose voice you admire. Or like the guy who answers the call to your brokerage firm. Or sort of like yourself, but…different.