Q. Why is it difficult for native speakers to understand me when I talk with them in English?
A. You are using the sound system of your first language for English, which has it’s own sound sytem. When we are born, our ears hear all sounds, and our brains process them all. As we interact with our caretakers, we begin to associate only some of these sounds with social interaction and our well-being. Gradually our brains learn to ignore the sounds that are unrelated to our survival, and give priority to the others. We begin to organize these important sounds into systems, and discriminate between environmental sounds and language sounds. So, at a very early age, we “stop hearing” some possible language sounds that we were once able to hear at birth.
Each of our brains is different; some of us have “an ear” for the sounds of other languages, even after we’ve become adults. That means it’s easier for us to recover those forgotten sounds and use them again in a new language system. However, some of us have to work very hard to hear those sounds again, and learn how to make them. And some of us didn’t realize the nature of their problem, and after studying the new sounds specifically and consciously, we can integrate them into our speech habits for the new language.
And each language has it’s own “mode” and “code” of sounds. The “mode” of our language is how we hold our jaw, where the tongue rests, how much we open or close our mouths, and how much we use our lips…and what for. The “code” of our language is how much we use pitch change, timing change, voicing change, and pausing, to construct our messages. Some languages have few code rules; English has more than most.
What’s the difference between pronunciation, intonation and fluency?
“Pronunciation” refers to how a word is pronounced. In English, spelling does not always tell us how a word should be pronounced. Sometimes the term “pronunciation” is used in a general way to cover all aspects of how you sound when speaking English. “Intonation” refers to the rise and fall of a speaker’s voice when they are talking. Mastering “intonation” is critical if you are going to use English to communicate, or with people who are unaccustomed to your accent. In English, intonation carries a great deal of extra information for the listener, including the speaker’s attitude toward the topic, their emotional state, their view of what is importance, and cues to what information is new or unusual. “Fluency” is a general term referring to one’s ability to express oneself easily or perform something easily. In regard to language learning, it also includes accuracy, comprehensiveness, and fluidity. If you are fluent in a language, it’s easy for you to understand and interact, using correct grammar, intonation, and expression.
I’ve reached an advanced level in English but I still must repeat myself. What’s missing?
If you’ve been studying English for quite a while, and are still having problems, perhaps you are missing these fundamental, but seldom taught, parts of the English sound. Pitch is a change of tone, like changing notes in music; most people can hear this, but not every English learner remembers to use it; some languages are more monotone than others, and English uses a much wider pitch range than most. Intonation is a series of changing tones or notes that follow a predictable pattern; the basics of these can be learned quickly, but remembering to use them is the problem. Rhythm and melody are pitch and intonation patterns adjusted across time to keep a fairly regular rhythm; this is a skill that must be learned physically, rather than studied analytically. And each language has it’s own “mode” or way of speaking that is different from other languages: where the tongue rests in neutral position; how the jaw sits; how much space is used vertically and horizontally in the mouth. All of this really does affect your sound in English and give you an accent that may sound charming or may make you incomprehensible.
Why is it so difficult for me to understand American English speakers?
American English speakers rely heavily on word stress and intonation patterns to share meaning, and in turn, to “catch” another speaker’s meaning. The rhythm of spoken English gives listeners many cues that help them follow your communication. English is such a rhythm-based language that if you put the stress on the wrong syllable in several words of a sentence, it’s possible that your native English listener will lose your meaning. That’s because English speakers follow stress and intonation to not only understand your ideas about the topic, but also to predict your line of thinking. It’s not enough to know vocabulary in English, you’ve got to master word stress and some intonation cues to be understood. The problem increases dramatically when we communicate over the phone or through recordings and listeners can’t get extra help from visual clues, such as facial expression, lip movement, and gestures.
What is your method for addressing my accent?
Here is my method. We start by finding out what our major interference problems are. Together we create a plan to address each issue, starting with the most critical. Your program will include these features:
Developing Awareness: First you must understand and recognize what’s causing your problem.
Instruction: Next, we decide what to change and how to change it, and then work to master those elements. Is it the placement of your tongue? Is it misplaced syllable stress? Is it first language rhythm patterns that conflict with English?
Practice: We will consistently work to develop these new habits; and much of the work is drill, drill, drill. You can’t change a physical habit without getting physical and training hard.
Persistence: This is very important–once you know what to change, and how to change, you must continue to practice your new habits so you don’t lose them. We might choose a plan of “gradual release”, in which we have lots of contact in the beginning and then, once you have acquired the skill, we meet less and less. Or we may choose the “revisit” strategy, and after the intensive course is over, schedule regular, intermittent sessions to ensure you are still using your new techniques, or help you recover them more quickly, if you have lost them.
How do I start?
Write to me at peggy@AmericanPronunciationCoach.com We can discuss possibilities and talk about specifics such as problems and solutions, scheduling possibilities, technology, and pricing.