How to lose an accent

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Many people come to us asking “How can I lose my accent?”.  I’ve even had a lovely woman from Brazil come in requesting that we “kill it”.

First of all – there’s nothing wrong with having an accent. Accents reflect diversity and cultural richness, and fill our ears with such a variety of lovely music.

An accent is only a problem if you’re having trouble being understood by your colleagues, clients, and friends. You could also be sending an unintended message if you’re using a non-native intonation or rhythm pattern. For example, an American may misinterpret a speaker with overly flat intonation in any of the following ways:

how to lose accent1. Speaker is in a bad mood or depressed
2. Speaker is bored with our discussion
3. Speaker doesn’t like me

Americans expect a certain rise and fall of pitch to signal friendliness and engagement. We also relax into familiar templates of speech rhythm, both at the word and sentence level, making it easier to follow a conversation.

Having said that, maybe you’ve decided to jump in and work on “losing your accent”.  Stop right there! You are not going to lose your accent. It’s been with you for a long time and you’re very, very good at it.  No, instead you are going to learn a new accent. Put your Italian-, or Russian-, or Spanish-accented English on the side, and start learning American-accented English, using our “GAP Method”©.

The Gap Method is a combination of three approaches:

how to improve American accentG: Global
A: Analytical
P: Practical

GLOBAL. Get on top of the accent. Imitate a native speaker. This is a fun shortcut to learning any accent. When you’re imitating someone’s speech, your ears (meaning your auditory memory of the accent) are telling your mouth what to do. If the accent is off (doesn’t match the auditory memory), your ears tell you that you need to keep on working at it.

If you’ve lived in the U.S. for some time, you are very familiar with the American accent – you’ve heard it spoken by native speakers, hour after hour, day after day.

However – and this is why you haven’t fully absorbed the American accent –  you are also very familiar with your own voice speaking English colored by your native accent. Every time you speak, your ear hears how you’re saying what you’re saying. The ear sends a message to the feedback loop in your brain, reinforcing the association between you, your voice, and your native accent.

When you first start imitating the American accent, you may not like what you hear. That doesn’t matter – keep doing it! and don’t negatively judge the results. You will get used to the sound, and you will get better. You’ll also become more flexible, as your ear teaches your mouth new “tricks”. (AccentsOff instruction always includes oral posture exercises to get the muscles of the face, mouth, and throat set up to “find” the American accent more easily.)

Be sure to check out the video at the bottom of this post where you will hear someone “doing accents”, masterfully.

ANALYTICAL. This is the meat of the work, where you build up your knowledge base and mastery of the detailed elements of the accent: what to listen for, and how to articulate it. For American English, that means studying the TH, the S vs. Z, the short IH and schwa sounds, etc; working on gradually replacing the old pronunciations with new ones, both in reading and conversation.

Also, adjusting your prosody: intonation, rhythm, and connections between words. This takes time and diligent, daily practice. Becoming more AWARE of how you’re speaking on a moment-by-moment basis is a skill in itself.

How long will this take? Unless you are a whiz kid at accents, plan on no less than 6-12 months to start building that awareness, complete the phoneme and prosody drills, and internalize what you’ve studied.

PRACTICAL. This is great for those “need-it-fixed-now” moments. Are there words important for your professional and personal life that you avoid because they’re hard to pronounce?  Is the barista at Starbucks messing up your order AGAIN?? Work on pronouncing these correctly once and for all. On the days when you’re too busy to practice your “Global” and “Analytical”, devote a few minutes to updating and practicing your “Survival Words” list.

Can you think of three Survival Words right now? Here are some recent additions to my students’ lists:  green tea, colleague, analysis, water, won’t, sheet, focus, Donald.

Other Practical projects could include:

  • Rehearsing and FINALLY recording that voicemail greeting (for those of us still using the phone)

  • Prepping for a presentation

  • Learning a monologue or famous speech

  • Working on and reciting your “Twitter pitch”: a short, snappy description of what you spend your time doing at work

  • Reviewing pronunciation lists: e.g. brand names (Americans say NAI-kee, not NAIK)

Whether you’re working on improving your American accent or just having some fun learning accents for the heck of it, remember the GAP. Here’s a guy who seriously did his homework!