Is your English accent letting you down?
The international world of business and education now requires more than ever effective communication in English. Whilst your English language skills may be excellent, our dependence on the written word in mastering these skills may cause us to overlook a factor of major importance in the workplace: accuracy of pronunciation. Phone and video conferencing with non-native speakers of English now plays an ever-present role in meetings, and as more and more interactions take place online listeners can no longer rely on body language to aid comprehension.
If you are frequently asked to repeat yourself, or find that you’re ideas are not being heard or taken seriously, it may be time to check whether your English accent is letting you down.
Let’s look at some of the ways in which English pronunciation can be tricky for non-native speakers.
Unlike many other languages which are largely written phonetically (letters and symbols represent sounds) the written English alphabet is a very unreliable indicator of pronunciation. For Latin based languages like French there are also many pronunciation ‘faux amis’, ie. words spelt the same in English which have a very different pronunciation in English. Training your ears to listen more effectively to recognise the vowel and consonant sounds of English (not spellings) helps to avoid this interference and to overcome habitual errors of pronunciation.
Speech is the product of breath and vibration bouncing between the static and moving parts within the mouth space. The amount of space we give our voice to resonate is governed largely by the jaw, whilst the agility of the tongue to move rapidly within that space shapes the acoustic space to create vowel sounds. Generally speaking consonants are formed by an obstruction (the lips, the teeth etc) the within that space. Your native language may have a very different default mouth setting to that required for English. You will need to adjust this mouth posture and train the muscles required to form these new shapes. With training a non-native speaker can learn to articulate individual sounds with precision and in turn to group these sounds into flowing, connected speech.
Stress and intonation
As well as, and arguably more importantly than, the phonemes (phonetic sounds) of English, effective speakers will need to master the music of the language. English words have distinct rhythm (stress) patterns which aren’t apparent from the written word. Any word of two syllables or more will have a strong or accented syllable (two in longer words). Native speakers will know where to add volume and change pitch (the ‘notes’) to highlight these stressed syllables, which are not marked in written English. Similarly English phrases have melody patterns which highlight key words, questions and many more subtle meanings. Non-native speakers will need to familiarize themselves with these rhythm and melody patterns and with their inevitable exceptions, in order to focus their audience’s attention. Without them your audience will quickly lose focus and miss your point.
You may be missing one or all of these important factors to accent clarity, but the good news is that you can do something about it. An evaluation of your speech by a qualified accent coach is a good place to start. But even without a coach there are a number of things you can do right away to develop your accent awareness.
Look out for my upcoming blog Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Improve Your English Accent.