Some Facts About Accent

What is an accent?
Well, we have said several times that it has three parts: 1. intonation which is the music of your speech made up off stress, rhythm and beat. 2. word connections, and 3. the pronunciation of the sounds (vowels and consonants) of the language. An accent is considered to be any noticeable variation in these elements. In the United States an accent is a way of speaking that is different from Standard Americam English which is spoken in the Midwest region of the United States.

Can I really change my accent?
Yes, you can change your accent. The question is how much you want to change it, and if you can keep making the changes when you are talking, not only when you are practicing. This depends on your motivation and commitment, as well as your flexibility and willingness to change. How you speak is a very personal issue, and changing it can make you uncomfortable for a while, as you may feel that changing your speech is changing YOU.

Does it matter what my original language is?
Yes and no. In terms of intonation and phrasing, all foreign speakers start out with very little in common with American English. In terms of pronunciation, however, there are definite areas of overlap which can be used to your advantage.

I've only been studying English for a short time, where should I start?
Beginners can start with children's books and cassettes. Listen to the stress and word connections. A good example is Dr. Seuss' "Hop On Pop" which will teach you the basic sound/letter correlation with an exaggerated intonation pattern. The grammar is simple enough not to pose a problem.

I've been studying English for a long time, what should I do now?
It is a little more difficult for a long time student of English because you have old habits that need to be broken. When you watch TV or listen to the radio, focus on the delivery rather than the content. Listen for Intonation and Word Connections. Practice writing down the real sounds that you hear, as opposed to the proper spelling of the words.

What does standard American English mean? Aren't there a lot of dialects in America?
Yes, there are, but there is also a generic "American sound" that transcends regions. It is that common sound that is standard in America. With greater communication, nowadays, there are young people with no noticeable accent living in regions that used to have heavy accents.

I thought that after 12 years old it was impossible to learn a new accent.
Children learn a language apparently effortlessly (it's not effortless, of course) for several reasons. First of all, because they are not as reading-oriented as an adult, they listen for the right things. Instead of wondering "how to spell it", they repeat back EXACTLY what they hear — rhythms and pronunciation, regardless of spelling. Second, children are more willing to make mistakes. Adults don't want to embarrass themselves, they don't want to look foolish, they don't want to appear ignorant, so they stick with what they know. Third, children aren't as "invested" in their original language as an adult might be. Children are more willing to accept different ways of thinking, and different ways of saying things. All of which is to say that while a child may just "pick up" a native sounding accent, an adult can do the same thing (with a little extra work).

Don't believe the following myths about learning a language as an adult:

Adult speakers cannot master native pronunciation because their tongue becomes stiffer.

Adult speakers cannot master native pronunciation because nerves and muscles necessary for pronunciation atrophy with age.

Adult speakers cannot master native pronunciation because their brain has taken final shape and this makes it harder for them to learn a new sound system.

How can I study on my own?
There are several options open to you. First, you can check out the other on-line resources available. When you are ready to start sharpening your hearing skills, other than in conversation. I recommend Books On Tape. This way, you can hear the words being spoken in a professional and interesting way, while at the the same time, reading along with them. This reinforcement is great for adults who really, really want to SEE the words, but really, really need to HEAR them. Read through the book with the tape, then once you are familiar with the story and the vocabulary, put the book down and really listen to the words

Courtesy of American Accent Training: 2nd edition, by Ann Cook, Barron's Publishing


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