Back to work!

Accent Shine is scheduling online classes!   However, we are building a new classroom space on our property, so no classes in person until construction is finished.  Hopefully the new building will be ready within about 6 weeks.

Talking & Teaching & Pronunciation

Yours truly (that is a slang way of saying “I”) had oral surgery and can’t talk much right now.  Since talking and moving your mouth are pretty important when teaching pronunciation, and I can’t do either right now, Accent Shine won’t be scheduling classes for a while.

Please check back here or on Facebook to see when we are back to work.

Stress & Unstress: The Music of English

Stress and unstress are extremely important in spoken English.  It’s like music.  In music, some notes are played LOUDLY, and some notes are quiet.  Some notes are held for a while, and some notes are played quickly.   Music would be very boring if everything were played exactly the same: same volume, same speed, no changes in pitch…and it’s the same with spoken English.  

When we speak English, we naturally highlight (stress) the words that provide the most important information. Less important words like “the”, and “to” get less attention (unstress).  In a sentence like “The dog ate the cat” you can hear in the recording how the stress varies across the sentence. There’s stress and unstress. 

Listen to the sentence “The dog ate the cat” spoken through a kazoo:

Some words are louder, longer, and the pitch rises.  Can you hear it?   

The words “dog” and “cat” and “ate” are stressed more in this sentence than “the”.  The final word in this sentence, “cat” gets the MOST stress, so we call it the focus word.   

This is an example of the music of English, and it doesn’t just make you sound more interesting when you speak (but it does!)–some linguists believe that this musical quality is the most important part of correct English pronunciation.  People understand your English better if you vary the stress. It helps listeners identify the important pieces of information.   Stressing words like “a”, “to”, “of”, and “the” only confuses your listener and makes you harder to understand. 

Which words are stressed most in the following sentence?  What’s the focus word?

“Bob is cleaning the house.”



Perception Training and You

I remember studying Armenian language. There were three sounds that initially sounded almost the same to me.  They were all something like /tz/ or /ts/  No English words begin with those sounds, so English speakers don’t recognize the difference.   In Armenian, however, those three little sounds make as much difference as the sounds /b/, /p/, and /k/ do in English.  Bit, pit, and kit are all different words in English, so it is important to get that first sound right.   Same thing in Armenian with those /ts/ /tz/ sounds–if you change the sound, you change the word.  The problem is, it’s hard to produce different sounds if you can’t even *hear* the difference between sounds!

When you were born, your brain could perceive (or hear) all the sounds of all human languages.  Very quickly, however, you learned to pay attention only to the sounds that people around you produced–the sounds that are important for the language(s) YOU heard.  If you only heard one language while you were a baby, then your brain is really good at hearing and distinguishing the sounds of that one language.  Unfortunately, this means that maybe it isn’t so good at hearing sounds from unfamiliar languages.  Luckily, and with practice, you can be trained to distinguish sounds from other languages.  This is called perception training.   

Research shows that perception training helps improve pronunciation in a foreign language.  In fact, you should first be sure you can hear the differences between sounds before you work on producing the sounds.

Here’s a good (and free!) online tool for doing perception training in English:  English Accent Coach.

You can work on vowels or consonants using the activities on this website.  For consonants, you choose the sounds you want to work on.  For example, if you have a problem hearing the difference between /L/ and /R/ and /N/, with English Accent Coach, you set up a ‘game’, and choose those three sounds.  A voice produces one of the sounds, and you click on what you hear.  The ‘game’ tells you if you are correct or not.  I wish they actually said words, but they don’t.  They produce only the sound, but still, it looks like a good tool for perception practice.

Go check it out!

New Year’s Resolutions

For many of us, the start of a new year is an opportunity to begin to change something about ourselves.  Maybe we want to exercise more, get more sleep, or eat less sugar.  Maybe we *resolve* to learn a new language or improve our foreign language skills.  Whatever our resolution may be, January is a time for new beginnings and looking forward.

Is now the time to start improving your English pronunciation?  Have you been thinking about taking lessons?

If 2017 is the year that YOU resolve to improve some aspect of your spoken English, contact Accent Shine today!

Happy New Year!!

Change Is Not Easy

Change is hard.  I know this because, for me, the past couple of years have been all about change.

My husband and I watched our Denver neighborhood change a lot. We decided to move and find a neighborhood that felt more ‘right’.  So, in 2015, we spent months fixing up our house, doing things I didn’t know we COULD do–working long hours every day when we weren’t doing ‘regular’ work.  Then we sold our house, and we moved to a different house in a new neighborhood in a new city.  New neighbors, new grocery store, new post office, new mayor.  When you have not moved in nearly 20 years, it’s a lot of change.

Out with the old, in with the new. That’s what they say.  But it can be hard to let go of the familiar, even when you know you will be happier in the end.

When people come to me to work on their pronunciation, I always say that it isn’t going to be easy to change. I start by telling them something I heard in grad school. One of my instructors described pronunciation improvement this way. She said there are four phases that we all pass through:

Phase One:  We aren’t sure WHAT the problem is. We just know that people sometimes can’t understand things we say, or they think the way we speak sounds funny or strange. Most people who come to me are at this stage.  After the initial analysis and assessment, everyone receives a report from me describing the problem and moves immediately into Phase Two.

Phase Two:  At this stage, we understand the problem, but we aren’t sure what to do about it. Lessons can help people in Phase Two, because they show us what we must DO to change the way we speak.  When we know HOW to change the way we speak, we have entered Phase Three.

Phase Three:  In Phase Three, we know how to improve our speaking, but we only speak the *new* way when we are thinking about it.  We have to concentrate when we speak to make the changes.  If we stop thinking about it, we return to speaking the old way.  This is the very hard phase.  If you have been speaking English for a long time, it is annoying.  Even if you are very fluent, now you need to pay attention to HOW you are saying things that you have said a thousand times.  You need to correct yourself when you notice yourself speaking the old way.  It’s hard work.  How long people stay at this stage depends on many, many things, with the most important being motivation, energy, and time to practice.   But only with hard work, attention to detail, and lots of self-monitoring is it possible to move on to the final phase–Phase Four.

Phase Four:  In Phase Four, we don’t need to think anymore about how to say things the new way.  Now it’s natural.  We do it automatically. All the hard work has paid off. 

Bottom line, change is not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we want something bad enough, with hard work, we can make it happen.

Here’s a hint to help you get to Phase Four as quickly as possible:  LISTEN TO ENGLISH. Listen to music.  Listen to natural conversations. Watch TV and movies in English WITHOUT subtitles as much as possible.  Listen and pay attention to HOW people say things.  Reading is a great way to improve your vocabulary and writing, but if you want to improve your pronunciation, you must LISTEN and speak.   I cannot emphasize the LISTEN part enough.  People’s brains expect to hear a language spoken in a familiar way.  When words and sentences do not sound familiar, the listener can get confused or annoyed that they have to work so hard to understand.


Is a native speaker always the best teacher?

Especially overseas, young English speakers are often hired to teach English solely because they are native speakers of the language. These individuals may have no other qualifications and may have no experience teaching, so I’m really not considering them in this discussion. I am comparing trained English teachers: native English speaking teachers versus non-native English speaking teachers.

It is a myth (a lie, even!) that a native English speaker is necessarily a better English teacher than a foreign speaker of English. In fact, a non-native teacher can be better than a native English speaker.  How can this be?  Well, most English speakers (even trained English teachers) without training in linguistics don’t realize that they are following a set of unconscious rules when they speak.  They acquired the ‘rules’ as babies and children, listening to adults speaking English, and they are not fully aware of their own language.

If you ask the typical English teacher how many vowels English has, you are very likely to hear the answer “five”–A, E, I, O, U.  A native English teacher trained in linguistics (or a teacher who is a non-native English speaker), however, will tell you that English has many more vowels than that!

English teachers who are non-native speakers have had to work hard to acquire their English. They have studied every aspect of the language. They hear and are aware of what native speakers are doing, even when the native speakers themselves don’t realize what they are doing.  They know the ‘rules’. So, a non-native English speaker can be a very good English teacher.

Bottom Line: You want a teacher who is extremely knowledgeable about English and its unconscious “rules”. The knowledgeable teacher might be a native English speaker with linguistics training, or it could be a foreign teacher, maybe even someone from your own country. Don’t rule out somebody as your teacher merely because they are not a native English speaker.