While many people take great pride in their accent, at times an accent can be perceived as a barrier to entry. Some non-native speakers of English admit that they feel their accent prevents them from fully integrating into social circles or means that others form judgments on their skills and abilities at work. This fact may be unpalatable, but unfortunately, it’s human nature - it’s how we’ve evolved.
So we totally understand why many of our clients come to us with the desire to soften their accents. There’s nothing to feel guilty or ashamed of.
Accents are important. They are an intrinsic part of who we are. They are part of our heritage. They tell the story of our background and our culture. So, why would we want to get rid of them? Well, as much as they are an asset to us, accents can be a double-edged sword, and for many they represent a conflict. For, while on the one hand, our accents are an integral part of our identity; on the other hand, for a non-native English speaker living and working in the UK, an accent can feel like it gets in the way of effective communication in English. And that can be a problem.
So how do we square this circle? Well, firstly, its about defining the goals and the challenges. At London Speech Workshop, we are very clear: the mission is not about losing one’s accent, because accents are too important, too essential to what makes us unique. Instead, it is about helping people to be clear and easily understood; to share their ideas in a way that does them justice; whilst still feeling confident that when they open their mouths to speak, what comes out represents who they are.
It is a reality that speaking English with an accent can lead to misunderstandings and sometimes confusion. It can lead to people asking the speaker to repeat themselves, or looking blankly, or trying to figure out what has been said. But this is no reflection on the speaker! It is the mechanics of language that lead to the issues. This is because each language has a different set of sound building blocks. So, for example, when a Spanish speaker speaks in English, they bring their own set of sounds to the language. The consequence of this is that they will pronounce English words with Spanish vowels and this can lead to confusion. Until the speaker goes back to basics, and learns the vowels that are ‘missing’ from their set of building blocks, it is very difficult to make changes. For example, let’s take the difference between 'ship' and 'sheep': in many languages, there is one sound for both these vowels, whereas in English there are two – so how an earth is a person suddenly meant to know how to create a new sound, and where to use it? And so they use one sound, which understandably, leads to confusion.
So our work at London Speech Workshop is clear: we make sure that sounds that are leading to any kind of confusion or misunderstanding are addressed, and we make sure the intonation patterns that make English work really well are being used. These two simple things, plus a few tricks and tools along the way, mean that the non-native English speaker feels they can get under the skin of English, and that they can communicate with clarity and a sense of confidence. It means that, when they open their mouths, what comes out is what they want to come out.
And where is the accent in all this, I hear you ask. It is there in that it is part of the speaker and who they are, but not there in a way that impedes the communication process.. It won’t slow things down or disrupt the flow or get in the way of the speaker connecting with others. So that is what we mean when we talk about softening an accent. It is making sure that it enhances the conversation, rather than impedes it.
If you feel that your accent gets in the way of your effective communication, then our latest eBook will help you make the first steps on your journey to becoming a brilliant communicator. Within our latest eBook, which is free to download below, we've put together 5 tools that you can start to use right away to soften the effect of your accent and use English to be more fully you.
Ok, let’s be honest - a lot of people would be offended by the title of this blog post. Why would anyone want to reduce their native accent? After all, our accents are part of our identity, our own special branding and they connect us to others who share that accent.
But the truth is that for various reasons, some people feel that their accent is interfering with their work or life goals and decide that they do want to make some changes.
Watch this video to find out more about our Accent Softening course:
Most people who come to us for help don’t want to eradicate their accent completely. After all, accents are a big part of who we are.
However, some do. If that’s you, it may be that you feel your accent no longer reflects how you see yourself or how you want to be seen. Perhaps you have lived in the UK for more than 30 years and your accent has stuck, or maybe you were born in the UK but spent a couple of formative years in another country and somehow picked up an accent that has never left. If this is the case, then we’ll work on the specific sounds that are holding on to your accent, usually, there are only a handful. And with committed work, you can remove all traces of the accent. Above all, there's no need to feel guilty about wanting to reduce or soften your accent.
The brain is a muscle so retraining it to make new sounds is a very similar process to going to a gym. With repeated and regular exercises, your muscles change and strengthen. It’s exactly the same when learning to take on new sounds and rhythms. Over about 10 weeks, if you practice regularly (5 to 10 minutes a day will do the trick) then several changes can be made, and over another 10 weeks, these can shift to the level of unconscious competence, meaning you’ll make the new sounds automatically.
Perhaps you aren’t worried about your accent per se but you just want people to hear and concentrate on what you’re saying rather than getting caught on noticing your accent. Or you want to feel confident and fully yourself when speaking in English. Your command of the English language may well be extremely good but there may just be a few tweaks to certain sounds, and some changes to rhythm and intonation, that will make all the difference to your confidence and competence communicating in English.
More and more we’re finding clients choose to do a mixture of our accent softening and effective communication course, as they have a dual goal of wanting to take the edge off their accent, and be better in general communication at work, from delivering more powerful presentations through to articulating with clarity and succinctness in meetings.
Finally, people come to us if they have life goals or ambitions that they feel unable to fulfil due to their accent or use of the English language in front of an audience. We find with most of our clients that it is the work we do on intonation, melody, and effective communication that really gives people the tools to handle the language with complete confidence.
So while the answer is yes, with perseverance it is possible to remove an accent completely, in our experience, it is rarely about this. More often than not it comes back to learning how to be a great communicator in English. The accent is merely one aspect that can influence this.
There is more to accent reduction than many people realise.
There are the things you might expect - the focus on pronunciation to make sure there are no sounds that are getting in the way of the speaker being understood, helping to turn nervous communicators into a clear and confident speaker.
But there are also the things you might not expect. To get the most out of a language we need an idea of the psychology or melody of it. Have you ever noticed that different languages or dialects have different inflections or tones? Think about Australian and American accents. Probably the first thing that springs to mind is just how different the intonation and melody is.
Intonation is about the rise and fall of our voice as we string words together i.e. the fact we rise at the end of a question or our voice gets higher or faster when we’re excited. By gaining more of an understanding of the way a language works, a non-native speaker can get under the skin of it and learn to craft their speech in a more authentic way.
We believe a shared focus on sounds and intonation is the best way to achieve success.
Step one is to create a road map. We look at every single sound within spoken English and identify which ones are getting in the way of clear English, perhaps by holding on to an aspect of the speaker’s native accent.
From here we help people to move from the way they pronounce a word to the way they want to pronounce it. There is no judgement. This is not about the right or wrong way to say a word. It is about the speaker gaining the confidence to express themselves.
In order to do this, we will work on three things – all of which are common confusables when it comes to non-native speaking of English:
Once we’ve tackled the basics, it is about getting them to stick and become second nature, like driving a car. This is done by building neural pathways and activating muscle memory through repetition and practise.
But don’t worry if you’re picturing the scene from My Fair Lady where Henry Higgins pops six marbles in Eliza Doolittle’s mouth, presumably to help her learn to enunciate sounds more clearly. Techniques have come a long way since the early 1900s - we use plenty of fun (and non-risky!) games to make the process easier.
We’ll move on to looking at whole words and spelling next, finding this can often be a sticking point when it comes to mastering the language. And then we start to make it real. We put the words into sentences, we use role play and more advanced exercises and games.
And finally, we give you tools to continue the journey yourself. We look at ways you can make the language your own, so it sounds natural and authentic rather than stiff and awkward.
While you are working on sounds, we also work on the more subtle aspects of language. We’ll address:
Through the combination of sound training and understanding of the many other aspects of language, you’ll quickly find you gain the confidence to take your English speaking to the next level and achieve your goals.
Our techniques are powerful. You’ll be surprised how little time it takes:
The journey may sound like a long one, but we’ll always take it one step at a time at a pace to suit you. With application and perseverance, you will achieve confident, clear speech that makes you feel like you can do anything.
English is wonderful, yes, but it is tricky. It has funny spellings and intonation rules that can get the unaware user into a pickle. So, if you sometimes find yourself confronted with a blank stare when you try to make a joke, tell a story, ask for directions or give a presentation - whatever it is - do not feel disheartened. Firstly, you are not alone; secondly, there are rules and tips that can make things so much easier!
This is not just a tip for non native speakers, but for all people who want to be good communicators. This tip alone can transform your communication, and I have written entire blogs, even entire sections of my book, on this. But, for now, a little tip: Vowels are all made with your mouth open, and as a result they can be as long or short as you like. When a word is important (and there should be a few important words in most sentences) then let those vowels be a bit longer, and a bit more full of feeling.
Simply by opening your mouth a little more, you can naturally start to inject more energy and emotion into the word. And the consequence? Well, it will slow you down (without you speaking slowly); it will draw people’s attention to specific words; and it will be more pleasurable to listen to. All good things!
Taking little pauses is so crucial to speaking well in English. It helps you be in control of what you are saying (rather than the idea run away with you), and it helps the listener feel comfortable, and stay with you, the speaker. I could wax lyrical on the power of pauses (and have in other settings) but suffice to say, they can be dramatic, political, or just downright sociable. In short, they work.
The best place to pause is after an important word. Our thoughts tend to have a natural flow to them and they are packed with important words (or else we would be spluttering grammatical words at people) so a thought or sentence can easily be broken into smaller units. Where you put the pause is largely up to you, but if for example, you say a long 20 word sentence without a pause, then the likelihood is people will struggle to follow. You can pause after one word, or after seven and anything in between. A nice way to think about it is through the metaphor of music, the pauses are like the musical phrases, allowing the listener to enjoy the melody.
A simple way to sound more fluid is flow your words together. Have you noticed English speakers’ words flow and yet you can clearly understand them? They are unconsciously using something called connected speech, and that is when words flow together within a unit of speech. Sticking with the musical metaphor, connected speech allows for our words to be like the notes within a phrase of music.
They do this by tagging the last letter of a word onto the beginning of the next word. For example, if I were to say an orange elephant’, I wouldn’t pause after each word – An Orange Elephant – it would it would sound stilted and odd. Instead, I can flow it together, as one complete thought or image. To do this I tag the ‘n’ of An onto orange and the ‘g’ of orange onto ‘elephant.’
Connected speech allows the speaker to share ideas, rather than individual words, and it’s a lovely way to find the music in your communication.
Do you sound different to the people around you? Do you feel like you don’t fit in? Or do you relish the fact that you’re just that little bit unique?
This week we’re exploring the emotions around accents; looking at both the positive and negative feelings that people attach to how they speak, as well as the potential for accent softening to improve communication.
So, whether you love the way you sound, hate it, never notice it or feel it affects everything you do, read on… you might just come to see your accent in a whole new light.
An accent is integral to the person you are, to the person you once were and to the person you will one day become. It is wrapped up in your identity, linking you with an invisible thread to other members of your family, to childhood memories and to shared experiences. In fact, your accent can be a great icebreaker - creating interest from others about where you’re from.
When you meet others who possess the same linguistic distinctions it gives you a sense of connection; a pull to your tribe or community, people from a similar location or background. Far more than skin colour or physical experience, accent has played an important part in our social interactions for hundreds of years and still highlights an unspoken understanding that in some way your life experiences have been similar.
And on a wider scale, the beauty of globalisation in our modern world is that it creates diverse communities; groups of people who come together to offer each other new ways of seeing and understanding the world around them. The fact that we hear so many accents around us is testament to the fact that we can now travel in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. It’s incredible and well worth celebrating! This melting pot of different nationalities and accents come together to create exciting new ideas and new opportunities. And ultimately new, meaningful connections.
But not everyone associates positive experiences with their accent all of the time.
Whether in business or social situations, there are times when that strong identity-holding accent can feel like it has become a distraction. It can get in the way of the message you’re trying to convey or can lead to confusion and a lack of understanding from your audience.
It’s understandable that this can be frustrating. If you can’t express yourself in the way you would among a home audience, you might find you don’t feel able to be true to who you are. And perhaps this leaves you concerned that people doubt your skill or expertise.
But while you know this isn’t a language issue, it’s one of pronunciation and vocal delivery, it can be hard to know how to fix the problems you’re faced with. Which, if you’re ambitious and looking for a foot up on the career ladder, can feel incredibly disempowering.
The ugly: the everyday impact of worrying about your accent
And while feelings are of course important, it’s the very real effect that these emotions can have on many important areas of life that can lead to a disconnect.
This stuff can be hard to get past. Tribalism is deep within our evolutionary biology. From ancient civilisations to today, finding our ‘people’ has given us a place of safety, a refuge from the world around, a source of protection from those who threaten us.
Should non-native English speakers drop, change or soften their accents? Your first instinct may be an indignant “of course not!” And in a way, we agree. But as with many things in life that seem clear cut, the reality is a little more complex than our first instinct might suggest. Let’s explore…
The short answer is not necessarily. If your accent doesn’t impact on your every day, if you’re happy, making friends and find you’re able to communicate well with those around you then absolutely not. Revel in the joy of an accent that is different to those around you and the intrigue it evokes in others.
But there may be some circumstances in which you feel you do want to consider making some changes.
You’re surrounded by one accent and feel that you stand out like a sore thumb. Particularly at work this may feel like a disadvantage to you, perhaps leaving you overlooked for promotions or opportunities.
You’ve lived here many years, you feel British, your kids are British, to all intents and purposes you are British. But your accent is at odds with that. Perhaps you’d like some tips to soften it slightly.
You’ve been passed up for promotion and you feel it might be because of poor communication. Perhaps there are parts of your speech that you feel less than confident about, or maybe you have no idea which elements you should be working on.
You feel your accent gets in the way when presenting
When you stand up to address the room you find yourself tripping over words and worrying you’re not being understood.
You’re frequently misunderstood. Whether on a telephone conference or face to face in a meeting, if you’re struggling to get people on your side or you often have to repeat what you say you might feel it’s worth smoothing out some of the edges of your accent.
You’re met with blank faces when you try to tell jokes and stories to friends, making you feel like an outsider, like you’re not one of the ‘tribe’. You feel that understanding how to get the intonation right, could help you fit in.
If you find yourself nodding along with any of the above statements, you don’t necessarily need to think about dropping your accent completely. But you might want to consider making a few changes.
In the first instance, your priority should be making sure you can be easily understood. That’s the most important thing. After that, it’s all about using language to full effect. Learning to understand and use the melody of language as well as the psychology and impact of the words you’re using. And this is something that everyone needs to do to be an excellent communicator, regardless of whether or not they have an accent that makes them stand out from those around them.
Our clients find that working with us on Accent Softening helps them speak in a way that boosts their confidence by reducing mistakes and misunderstandings. At first, they have to make a conscious effort to adjust the way they speak but it soon becomes natural and effortless - much like driving a car. That’s because practice builds neural pathways in the brain, taking you through from conscious competence to unconscious competence. It is possible to make the changes you want to make!
So, should you change your accent? London Speech Workshop’s position in this debate is simple. We believe it’s important to soften your accent only as much as you need to so that it doesn’t get in the way of your goals and your wellbeing - and this will be different for everyone. After that, it’s about providing the support and tools to help you become the best communicator you can be.
If you want to make changes to your accent then there’s no reason to feel guilty. It’s up to you to decide what works for you.
Ahh the beautiful French language… it conjures up images of romance, beauty and charm. As a Francophone in an English-speaking country, you’ve probably been complimented on your attractive accent countless times - it’s commonly stereotyped as the world’s sexiest, and the English love to try (and fail!) to imitate it. Of course there’s nothing wrong with having an accent that people adore, but perhaps you want to break free and get your point across without being put into a romanticised French-speaking box? Or you’re simply fed up of being asked to repeat yourself? Whilst there are difficulties for all English language learners no matter their mother tongue, it can be useful to understand the specific nuances. If you’re a French speaker who struggles with English pronunciation, read this blog for some simple tips and tricks on how to improve your British accent whilst still allowing your beautiful identity and personality to shine through.
Kate is a self-confessed accent geek - why not Book A 1-hour Taster Session with her or one of our other coaches today?
The French and English systems of word stress and rhythm are very different, and this can lead to some challenges when you are a French speaker trying to speak English. If you are struggling to be understood when you speak English, try stressing the second syllable of words, rather than the first. To practice, have a go at putting emphasis on the capitalised bits of the following words: converSAtion, apPArently, iDEa, neGOtiate, unFORtunately.
For French speakers, some of the vowel sounds can be tricky. French speakers often think English speakers ‘swallow’ their words, and this can make you sound monotonous and uninspiring.
Here are some examples of where French only has one sound where English has two:
Try pronouncing these words and see if you can hear how each one is different.
Watch this video to find out more about how vowels can help you speak authentically:
Another challenge for French speakers: questions! Words like ‘do’ have no equivalent in French, and this can make it tricky to form interrogatives as you would in your own language. Often, it is easier for French speakers to simply add a question mark to their sentence ‘You are going to work today?’ as opposed to 'Are you going to work today?'. In English, inflection (when you go up at the end of your sentences) is used for asking questions, rather than making a statement. This intonation is crucial if you want to deliver your message with conviction. Have a go at experimenting with different sentences, noticing the different in your intonation on a question versus a statement.
One of the major consonant changes that happens from French into English - the quality of the ‘R’ sound. In English, we pronounce the R sound when there is a vowel sound after it - as in ‘really’, ‘carry’, ‘red’, ‘right’. If there’s no vowel after it however (‘learn’, ‘other’, ‘car’) we don’t pronounce it. This can’t be said for French though! Believe it or not, the difference in R sounds is simply down to the position of your tongue. If French is your mother tongue, the R sound is formed at the back of the mouth, whereas in English, the tip of the tongue curls up in the mouth then releases forwards. Try practicing the 'r' sound in the mirror and notice what your tongue does. Another tricky sound for French speakers is the ‘TH’ - watch this video to help you master it.
Vowels have a greater impact on accents than we think. When looking into accent softening, it is at first important to understand that it's no mean feat!
The sounds you use to create your words and speech are hardwired into your brain. So when you speak, usually you're thinking about what you're saying, or trying to find the correct words to express yourself articulately - not about the sounds you are going to use to formulate the words!
Is there a right way to pronounce words? Well, when you decide you would like to soften your accent, you are embarking upon a kind of journey - that of putting new sounds into your head to make up old words. And in order to use them, you now have to think before you speak, probably in a very different way from how you are used to!
Do you sometimes feel that your accent gets in the way, or leads to misunderstanding, or affects your confidence at work? Keep watching!
One of the central features of changing your accent, are the vowel sounds, and this is because different languages have different vowel sounds, and it is the vowel sounds that are the building blocks of the words.
Even if you have lived in England for 20 years, if you have never consciously or unconsciously learned the new vowel sounds, then you will be using your native languages vowel sounds, and so you will have retained an accent.
This is the first component to getting vowels accurate. Each vowel sound requires a very specific physiological position. So if you are used to making a sound in your language, which is close, but not exactly the same as the English sound, then you will be likely to use it instead of the accurate sound.
Often these vowel sounds fall in between two of our English sounds, and this leads to confusion and misunderstanding. How annoying! If only all languages shared the same vowel systems, it would make life a whole lot easier!
As we mentioned, the vowels can be thought to be the building blocks of words. They contain the energy or the emotion of the word, as in a sense they come straight from the gut. Say 'ahhh', and now, say 'oooh' - can you see what I mean? Even on their own they express human emotions!
All of them are expressed with an open mouth, the tongue and lips and jaw in a specific position. The consonants then, can be think of containing them in a sense, as all the consonants (apart from H) are made with contact somewhere in the mouth. So vowels are open sounds, and consonants make contact.
Once you think of the vowels as containing the emotion of the word, you can begin to understand where actors get their power from, or how politicians use rhetoric and language to provoke emotion. Listen to Kenneth Brannagh doing a Shakespeare speech for example, his drawn out vowels are used specifically to create emotion in the listener. We love this example of him as Richard V.
This is the second component of vowels, which this brings us to another important feature. In Received Pronunciation (which is the official terminology for neutral English, or Queen's English) we have 12 main vowel sounds, and these are divided into two groups, long vowels and short vowels.
The long vowels must be made long enough, or else can easily get mixed up with their shorter neighbours. Take the sound 'ahhh' for example, is a long vowel sound. Its short neighbour, is 'uh' (as in hut). To make both these sounds, the jaw is dropped, and there is no smile, no width to the mouth.
The 'ahhh' is the sound you make if you go to the doctors and he wants to see your tongue. Try it in front of the mirror - you should be able to see your tongue! The 'uh' sound is the same position, just that it is shorter so the jaw doesn't actually need to drop quite as much.
Make the two together: 'ahhh', 'uh', 'ahhh', 'uh'. This should involve almost exactly the same position for both, and a nice open mouth, and flat tongue.
Good. Now let's try it with words. Try saying the following pairs of words a few times while bearing in mind the above.
It is important to get the length of the vowel, because that is the only factor which separates it from its neighbour in many words. Not just this, in the length of the vowel, lies the soul, or the aroma of the word.
If you make it too short, the word feels empty. Hear the difference between the word hut and heart. Say heart with its full length, and it sounds beautiful and has the potential for poetry, "My heart is bursting". Get it too short, and you've got a rather unromantic statement: "my hut is bursting".
Get the length, and this will convey to your listener that you understand the intricacies of English. Truly, it is a shortcut to giving a sense to your listener that you really understand the language in all its complexities.
The spelling is the third component to getting vowels accurate. As you might have noticed from the above examples, there's all kinds of spellings for sounds. This is important, and often comes as a shock for the new student looking to change their accent. But the spellings are not so helpful.In the word HEART the letters E, A, R spells the sound 'ahh'. In the words CALF, and CALM, the 'ahh' sound is spelt with A, L. Similarly the 'uh' sound is spelt sometimes with the letter U and other times with the letter O.
A little confusing, but each sound does have a limited number of possible spellings. This can be helpful, but what the new student learns quite quickly, is that while spellings can act as a little bit of a guide, their ear, and listening skills are their new best friend.
In this article we hope to have shown you that the melody of English comes in great part from the vowel sounds, and that getting the vowel sounds accurate, is not a dry process, but rather exciting! Once you've got the hang of it, you can empower your speech by using vowels whether you're giving a presentation, speaking to your boss or chatting to a colleague.
Reducing your accent can be a daunting process, but it can also be a key to unlock the subtleties and flavour of spoken English.