Designing and delivering effective Accent Softening to people from all around the world is a major part of my professional life. My clients often speak several languages, including have a good grasp of the English language. They are able to understand complex ideas in English, and work in a British company, using English every day.
Despite this, many of them come to me expressing that they struggle to be understood, that they do not feel confident expressing their own ideas in English, and that they find the language difficult to speak. How can this be when they can speak the language?
It often feels to me like my clients are trying to speak with marbles in their mouth. That their mother tongue is blocking their English tongue.
Learning to speak any new language is not just about getting the vocabulary and grammar right. You also need to be able to pronounce the sounds, express the rhythm and find the melody. There are many accents of English, and they are all valid. The goal is clarity and ease.
Speaking is a physical act. Much like dancing, It requires that you move muscles in a particular way with accuracy and speed.
If you imagine that each language, or even each accent, is its own dance then can you see how you will need new steps and even to use slightly different muscles to achieve the new moves.
Moving from one speaking ‘style’ to another is known as code-switching. It happens when we move between languages, and it also needs to happen when we move between accents.
Successful code-switching is the art of moving from speaking English with your mother-tongue accent to speaking English with your English accent.
It is important to note that you do not need to speak English with an English accent to be a successful communicator. You just need to able to code-switch enough and with ease so that your mother tongue dance is not blocking your English tongue dance.
This would be like Fred Astaire learning to dance Hip Hop!! He could, but he’d have to learn how, and practice lots.
So how can you learn to code-switch?
There are three main things needed for this process to succeed.
- The environment
Surround yourself with an English speaking environment whenever possible. This can be at work, at home or through technology such as TV, radio or audio books. Emersion is the key. Even when speaking to people from your own country, try and both converse in English.
Become curious about English. Notice how different people (especially native speakers) pronounce things. Watch films and look at the shape of the mouth. Listen to conversations or radio and mimic the melody and shapes as best as you can. Notice what is different about the way you speak now and English spoken around you. How does it feel different in your mouth? How does it sound different to your ear? Play with it and mimmic it as often as you can, noticing the details.
- Repetition and focus
The way you speak now is your current speaking habit. In order to create any new habit all you need to do is repeat a new action regularly enough until you don’t have to think about it any more. Do focused and and detailed practice. Practicing particular consonants or vowels you find difficult on their own, then putting them into words and phrases. Helping your mouth learn the new steps so you can speak them at speaking speed with accuracy. Read something out loud, record it and listen back. Notice which sounds you find difficult and practice them.
You only need to do a little bit each day, but do it in a focused way.