Working with students from every corner of the world, I have come to recognize the various linguistic challenges my students face depending on their language backgrounds. For each accent, there are dozens of things to talk about, from pronunciation of individual sounds, to oral posture, to intonation and rhythm, etc; but a few salient features for each accent group immediately come to mind.
Note: these are generalizations, and speakers of a particular language background will fall on a spectrum.
For example, I have met Japanese native speakers – maybe 2% of my students from Japan – who have no trouble differentiating R and L. The other 98% receive our “What the Hell? R or L??” practice sheet.
I have occasionally worked with French people who have a perfect TH, and with Russians who get their V’s and W’s right every time. These are the lucky ones who get to skip those particular exercises! For the most part, the French will need to convert that S/Z to a true TH, and the Russians will be working hard learning how to correctly pronounce “West Village”.
For speakers of Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Bengali, and other languages of the Indian sub-continent (referred to as “ISC- speakers” going forward), the most notorious communication pitfalls tend to be:
Speaking too fast and with unvaried rate
Speaking with flat intonation and unvaried stress
Not projecting the voice
To help these students, we have created a set of what we call “flash strategies”. While flash strategies alone will not eliminate your ISC accent, they can be applied with minimal effort during conversation. Just a little attention to one or more of these three strategies can cut through some of the accent’s interference and make your speech clearer to American ears.
Strategy #1: Slow down. However, do NOT slow down on every word or you will be at high risk for Listener Disconnect! Choose one or two key words that are vital to the meaning of the sentence or question. This does not require conscious planning; we intuitively understand that a word like “meeting” is more important than a word like “going”. It takes just a subtle slowing down: “Are you going to the meeeeting?” …somewhat like gently putting on the car brakes right before you hit a speed bump. Listen to two versions (the first with no variation, the second with variation):
Also, you will be considered a much more interesting speaker if you incorporate a general variety of rate into your speech. Slow down a bit on sentences and phrases that carry the most weight, and speed up a bit on less critical strings of words. Pauses before meaningful words and phrases help as well. Listen to two versions of this quote by Viktor Frankl:
Strategy #2: Move your voice. This works well in conjunction with Strategy #1. While slowing down on your keyword, you can also lift your pitch slightly to give the word even more emphasis. Good speakers are constantly modulating pitch and rate, sometimes together, to create a rich composition of meaning. Listen to these two passages and see how much more easily you grasp the meaning in the second passage:
Strategy #3: Invisible Microphone Exercise: a quick and easy way to get your voice projected and directed – also an excellent way to cut through the accent. Here’s how you start:
1. Hold a microphone (or water bottle, etc) right in front of your mouth, the way you would if you were making an actual recording. Speak into the “mic”. A brief personal introduction or elevator pitch is good content to use (“Hi, my name is Amit and I work for….”).
2. Now move your mic to a position about 4 feet away from your head; set it on a table or counter. Direct your voice toward and into the mic. You will need to use your breath and voice in a more focused, intentional manner than before.
3. Finally, move the mic to a distance about 10 feet away, and repeat the exercise. This is similar to what actors and musicians do on stage: they imagine performing to the back row (the “cheap seats”:).
You can use the Invisible Mic exercise anywhere you need to amplify your voice: in a large room, in a noisy restaurant or bar, or outdoors. You can also dial down the exercise and use it in small spaces or even on the phone, to minimize accent interference.
COMING IN JANUARY 2019:
Online group American accent training for Indian-accented English.
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