For some people this is easier than others, for most people, it takes quite a bit of work. However, it is definitely possible! There are three main features one needs to be conscious of when looking to reduce their accent and move towards a neutral English Accent. The first is that your native language, and neutral English (known as received pronunciation, or RP) will have a different set of vowel sounds. These are not the vowels you are taught at school, these are the sounds that make up the words, and very few places teach them, they are more something we just take on when we learn a language. When you learn English, you learn the words, and the grammar, but not the specifics of the sounds that make up those words, that’s why so many people speak fluent English, yet still have the frustration of being misunderstood. There are twelve main vowel sounds in English and all of these have a unique position with the mouth, lips and tongue in a certain place. Learn the position, and you learn the sound. The next challenge is recognizing the sounds in words! There are seven secondary vowel sounds, called diphthongs, they are made up of two vowel sounds put together. The vowels have different features, but the main difference between the vowel sounds is whether they are long or short, and getting the length of the vowel right, makes an enormous difference to being understood.
The second factor of accent reduction is consonants, in your native language, you might have a slightly different set of consonants, and so are not familiar with all the English consonant sounds. This can lead to a lot of confusion, and in English when the consonants are wrong, or mixed up with other consonants, the words can have entirely different meanings, or just sound plain odd to the English ear. For example, the sounds ‘w and v’ will often cause confusion for German or Arabic speakers, like veil and whale, with the two often getting mixed up. While Asian speakers can find differentiating between ‘l’ and ‘r’, particularly difficult.
To make matters more confusing in English we have voiced and voiceless versions of the same sounds, meaning that while the mouth is in exactly the same position for making a sound, the voiceless sound is made only with breath, and the voiced sound is with the vocal chords engaged. You can try this for yourself by putting two fingers on your throat, and then alternating between ‘SSSSS’ and ‘ZZZZZ’. Can you feel your throat vibrate a little on the ZZZZ sound? That is the vocal chords activated. Sometimes it can be confusing, particularly when the voiced and voiceless versions are spelt with the same letters. Like with ‘TH. Think about the ‘TH’ sound of ‘thirsty’ and now the ‘TH’ sound of ‘then’. One is voiced and the other is voiceless. Can you tell which is which?
Now for the third factor of learning the English Accent; stress and intonation. This is a huge and complex area, but in a sense, the most exciting. It is here that the melody of spoken English comes alive. There are two distinct areas here, word stress and sentence stress. By ‘stress’ we mean words or syllables that are given extra emphasis. You can add this ’emphasis’ by going louder, higher, or longer on the stressed syllable of the stressed word. So lets take the word MORNING for example. The stress is on the first syllable.
Now lets try stressing it by making it louder: MORN ing.
Now try making it longer M.. O.. R.. N ing
Now try making it higher morn ing.
Good! Now for some rules. Firstly, every single word has its unique stress pattern. This means that the stress doesn’t just change randomly according to the mood of the speaker. If a word isn’t stressed according to its unique stress pattern, it sounds plain odd. In fact, this is one of the big differences between native speakers and non native speakers, and even when a person is fluent, and has barely any accent, it can be the word stress that gives them away. Secondly, every word of two syllables or more will have one syllable which takes the primary stress and an unstressed syllable. In a sense you can think of it as there being a master and a slave. In the word Morning, The first syllable MORN is the master, and the second syllable ING is the slave.
Now, the second thing to know is the unstressed syllable is most commonly made up of a little vowel sound which is rather like a grunt. Not only is this grunt the most common vowel sound in the English language, it also has its own name. It is called a SCHWA. If you open your mouth just a little bit, but keep your jaw completely relaxed, and now make a sound. It should come out like ‘UH” and that is the schwa. The Schwa can come at the beginning of words, like ‘away’ (try it: UH WAY) and ‘about’ (UH BOUT) and at the end of words like runner, (RUN NUH) or Winter (WINT UH). It can also come in the middle of words like Saturday (SAT UH DAY).
Take a look at the following words, and see if you can spot the SCHWA.
Banana, doctor, America, lever, garden, paper, under, support, figure, glamorous, measure, document.
Notice it gets a bit tougher to recognize with the longer words, but that’s okay – you will get used to it!
When some of these concepts of word and sentence stress are grasped, the speaker has the key to unlocking the melody of spoken English. This skill, coupled with learning how to make and recognize the accurate sounds is the route towards successful accent reduction. It’s quite hard work, but with practice is very possible, and can even be rather good fun!