I recently had the privilege and honour of being interviewed by my fellow English Language trainer, Elena Mutonono on her recent webinar “Accent Training for Business People“. For those of you who didn’t sign up for the webinar, here’s the recording. In that webinar we discussed the benefits of accent training for non-native business people and how accent training improves communication.
I asked Elena, a pronunciation expert, to write a guest post for me to share her three tips on how you can make your spoken English sound more natural. I am delighted to pass the baton over to Elena for this week’s post.
I remember a few years ago I went to a beauty salon in New Orleans and was served by a nice lady from Brazil. She was kind and obliging and kept talking about something. What made the whole experience unforgettable is her pronunciation that was so difficult to decode.
The intonation and the word stress sounded to me as though I was watching a Brazilian soap opera without translation where one good sister loses the love of her life, and the other one steals him. OK, I’m probably exaggerating here, but you get the picture.
What was worse is I felt ashamed that I couldn’t talk to this lady. I wish I could speak Portuguese and discuss my deep knowledge of Brazilian glamorous and melodramatic series. Also, I wished I could just help her, somehow, break that Brazilian pronunciation pattern and speak English more naturally. Obviously, I couldn’t. It would have been rude to say:
“Hi, my name is Elena Mutonono, and I’m an accent coach. Let me help you.” It doesn’t work like that.
The incident though made me realize how natural sounding speech makes communication so effortless. Obviously, one would need some vocabulary and grammar knowledge as well, but even if those are in place, when your speech doesn’t sound natural you’re making the person in front of you strain his/her ear and feel bad because they can’t really communicate with you.
Breaking the Vicious Circle of Crippled Communication
As a non-native speaker who spoke no English until the age of 15, I can totally relate to the overwhelming feeling of helplessness when you’re trying to communicate, but the native speaker stops you, mid-sentence, and says those words (you know them, right?), “Eh? Could you say that again, please?”
Embarrassed, you try to keep your cool and say it again wondering as you speak whatever you’d said wrong. Then the person sort of gets what you are saying but then the new problem begins: you can’t figure out what the answer is!
It’s a vicious circle! And it never ends. Perhaps at times like these you say to yourself, I’m never going to figure out how to speak it right. Trust me, I was there, and now I’m an accent coach (!). If I could do it – you can too.
But how? What will make your speech sound more natural?
In this post I’m going to write about 3 things that I would share if I only had a 3-point lesson plan to teach about the vast topic of pronunciation that I’ve been teaching since 2003.
These 3 principles + your practice will make your speech sound very natural and native-like. First let me spell out the principles then I will show you how you can practice them (one is useless without the other).
# Principle 1: English words connect.
Reading this post is easy for you because every single word has its place, and there’re white spaces between the words, which makes reading easy. Imagineifyouwerereadingsomethinglikethisandtryingtofigureoutwhatintheworldthispersonhaswritten.
Right. In writing and reading you use spaces to separate the words so that written communication is effortless.
Let’s take it to the next level: what happens to a non-native speaker like you and me who’s used to referring mainly to books while learning? Generally we use the same pattern when we speak – we separate each word and single it out just like we do in reading and writing.
However, what happens in spoken English is completely the opposite from the written because in spoken English (which includes both conversation and official negotiations): words connect to each other.
So you would expect them to say, “I will submit a report at the end of the week,” but they in fact will say something like (note that I added spaces to make it easier for you to see where you would normally put them, but non-native speakers don’t have them at all),
aɪl səbmitə rɪˈpɔ:ət tðɪ jendəvðə wi:k
What can you see in this sentence (the color-code guide)?
- Each sentence always has a contraction (I will – I’ll). I don’t know about you but at my school I was discouraged from using them because, as my teachers would say, “Non-native speakers will not understand you.” This is wrong. In fact, if you’re taking an IELTS or any other international test and are not using contractions that is probably one of the reasons why you’re getting a lower-than-expected band on your speaking. When a person contracts (shortens the words) they sound more natural in English.
- The words are linked. You can see from the examples above that the vowel that follow consonants are never separated, they’re always “glued” to the previous consonant: end of – endəv, report at – reportət, submit a = submitə.
- Whenever 2 vowels come together (one at the end of the word – the other in the beginning), they are also connected. The i: vowel will connect to the following, and a /j/ sound (like in the word your) will emerge. Obviously, native speakers don’t hear it, and after you practice long enough you won’t pronounce it so “evidently,” but it will still be there: the end = th/i jend/.
# Principle 2: Not Every Word has the Same Value.
Some languages (like my mother tongue, Russian, for instance) have very different stress patterns from English. Many other languages are the same: words are stressed almost the same way, and that makes your speech intelligible and native (in your mother tongue).
However, when you switch to English you will somehow bring the stress pattern from your mother tongue, and it will immediately sound foreign. I do a lot of accent reviews, and the first thing that I have to tell people is that their stresses are off. What that usually means is a person will stress every word the same way, but it’s wrong in English.
In English some words are stressed and others – not (and as a result they’re weakened and reduced).
What are those unstressed words?
There are 4 groups:
- Articles and particles: a/an/the/to (to work), etc.
- Pronouns (he/him/her/she/they/them/their, etc.), except the times when you want to stress that word, e.g. It was him who was absent from my class yesterday.
- Auxiliary and modal verbs (do/does/can/should/will, etc.), except negatives or emphatic situations: I should talk to him tonight. You couldn’t speak at all?
- Conjunctions and prepositions (and, but, or, on, to, for, etc.).
What does it mean not to stress these words? This is usually where problems occur. Not to stress means not to pause before or after these words, it means to connect these words to the previous words:
He worked at the farm.
In this sentence we only stress 2 words: worked…. farm.
These two words are pronounced at the regular time intervals.
So you say:
No white spaces after “worked” and before “farm.”
# Principle 3: Some h’s disappear all the time.
In the auxiliary verb “have” and in pronouns him/his/her/he (except when they are at the beginning of the sentence) the “h”s disappear. Consider this example:
He fixed his car.
In the beginning we will always pronounce “he” as a full form. But then after “fixed” the “his” will be reduced to “is,” and this reduced form will be linked to the word before:
Here are a few other examples: I told her = I tolder; I saw him = I sawim.
How do you implement these 3 principles into your speech?
Now that you know all these natural-sounding speech principles how do you actually introduce them to your speech? In other words, how do you make your speech sound more natural?
Here are a few practical steps that will help you practice:
- Choose a simple text for practice (I always recommend listenaminute.com for their variety, simplicity and audio-files accompanying the texts).
- Print it out and color-code the links using your markers.
- Highlight the words that are stressed (those are all the words that carry meaning).
- Practice each sentence slowly multiple times on your own, then turn on the audio and practice reading after it.
- After you’re done with this text record yourself and evaluate.
If you’re doing things right, a 1-minute text will take you at least 30 minutes to go through (maybe an hour). But after you’ve done 1 well, you’ll find that each new text will be much easier and faster.
After some time these patterns will move into your speaking, and you’ll sound more natural.
Elena Mutonono is an accent coach. Originally from Ukraine she now lives and works in the USA helping her online students achieve phonetic accuracy and near-native fluency. Elena is the author of 2 online pronunciation courses. She has recently published an e-book “Sound Like a Native,” which you can download for FREE here ().
Thanks ever so much to Elena for this much-needed and helpful post. I’d recommend you download her book.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post. Please share this post with friends and colleagues you think may benefit from accent training.
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Ciao for now