“What should I be working on first?”
Many people wish to work on their accents, but are at a loss of where and how to start this process.
In the previous article, I talked about why you need a thorough accent assessment by a qualified accent coach as step one.
After a thorough assessment, your accent coach compiles a list of targets that would help you achieve clarity and naturalness in your speech. These targets are typically composed of speech sounds (consonants and vowels), as well as prosodic elements (e.g., syllabic stress, intonation).
Many accent learners are eager to improve fast and work on many targets all at once, thinking that more is better. Unfortunately, this is often detrimental to progress, not beneficial.
Instead, we need to work on a small, manageable number of targets at a time, and order them in a way that would give you maximum results in the shortest amount of time.
A qualified and experienced accent coach employs several strategies in target prioritization. Here I will describe some of these strategies –
We prioritize targets that would make the most difference in your life
Let’s say you have difficulties distinguishing the consonants /r/ and /l/, and also between the vowels /i/ (as in “eat”) and /I/ (as in “it”).
If you work for a company called “Reliance Tech,” you may want to focus on your /r/ and /l/ first.
On the other hand, if you are a doctor, then the difference between “fifteen” milligrams” and “fifty milligrams” may mean life or death. In this case, it would make sense to prioritize the /I/ and /I/ vowel distinction.
We prioritize targets that the most frequently occurring in English
For instance, if you’re having difficulties with “r” and “ch,” it would make sense to prioritize the “r” sound, since many more spoken words contain the “r” than “ch,” especially if you’re training the North American accent.
We prioritize targets that produce the most misunderstandings
Not all speech sound distinctions have the same impact on your comprehensibility.
To understand this point, we need to first understand two concepts – minimal pair, and functional load.
Minimal pairs are pairs of words that only differ in one element. It can be a consonant (e.g., “alive” and “arrive”), a vowel (e.g., “live” and “leave”), or a prosodic feature (e.g., the stressed syllable in “PERfect” and “perFECT).
Functional load refers to how much “work” a speech contrast does in conveying meaning in a language. It is usually measured by how many minimal pairs a sound contrast produces.
Studies have shown that errors involving high functional load contrasts are linked to reduced comprehensibility scores.
The vowels /i/ and /I/, for instance, have an extremely high functional load. They produce countless minimal pairs – “live, leave” “sit, seat” “chip, cheap” “his, he’s” “is, ease” “lick, leak”… It would make sense to prioritize these two vowels.
In contrast, the functional load of 2 different ways of producing “ng” (/ŋ/ as in “singer” and “ŋɡ” as in “finger) is nil. Making an error in “ng” is, in effect, of little consequence.
We order or combine some targets based on required skill and knowledge
For instance, for consonants “t” “d” and “k” in English, there are two versions – aspirated and unaspirated versions. Aspiration is a plosion of air that accompanies these consonants in certain contexts. The “t” in “top” is aspiration (has a plosion of air, denoted phonetically as /tʰ/), while the “t” in “stop” is unaspirated (no plosion of air, denoted phonetically as /t/).
There are rules for aspiration, and one of the rules has to do with stressed vowels – “t” “d” “k” are aspirated immediately before a stressed vowel.
For instance, “repair” (aspirated /pʰ/ before a stressed vowel) versus “supper” (unaspirated /p/ before an unstressed vowel).
Therefore, to master aspiration, one has to first master the rules of syllabic stress. Hence, if you have difficulties in both areas, working on these two targets in concert or addressing aspiration after syllabic stress would make sense.
As you can see, having the guidance of a qualified accent coach takes the guesswork out of your accent training efforts. After a thorough evaluation, I will tell you exactly which targets you should focus on to get the “most bang for your buck.” I would show you how to achieve your accent goals in a systematic manner, using methods that are scientifically proven to work. I will provide you with all the materials you need for your practice. And, I would provide extra support if you have an important interview, presentation, or meeting.
Are you ready to take your communication skills to the next level? Reach out to me today for a free screening, which can be used as a guideline for your accent training efforts.