The Science Behind Accent Modification

What’s in it for you?

Many international professionals participate in accent modification, or accent reduction.  Accent training reduces the risk of misunderstandings.  It results in improved interpersonal relationships and human connections.  Ultimately, for business professionals, accent reduction leads to greater confidence and morale in the workplace, which can translate to: reaching and helping more clients if you own your own business, higher pay, and career advancement!

Sneak Peak at an Accent Reduction Program

Certified Accent specialists have extensive training and experience in speech and hearing science, and phonetics.  “Phonetics” is defined as “The branch of linguistics that deals with the sounds of speech and their production, combination, description, and representation by written symbols.”  Are you wondering how accent specialists develop the unique, customized programs for their clients?  Read on.

What about place of articulation?  When we want our listeners to understand us, we need the words to come out clearly.  In accent modification, we focus on “breaking down,” or, in other words, separating words into their individual sounds (to read about figurative language, click here).  We separate these sounds into the location at which the tongue or soft palate is positioned, which is called place of articulation.   Let’s learn some places of articulation!

American Speech Versus other Languages

  1. Tongue high on the alveolar ridge versus tongue low on the alveolar ridge.  For example, many arabic speakers pronounce the “l” sound higher on the alveolar ridge (the bumpy, arched bone above the gumline) when the “l” is at the end of a word.
  2. Tongue on teeth versus tongue on lips.  For example, Punjabi speakers commonly pronounce the “v” sound as a “p” sound at the beginning of words.  Instead of using their teeth, they use only their lips.
  3. Tongue on teeth versus tongue on alveolar ridge. Ninety-five percent of Taiwanese speakers pronounce the “th” sound as in “this” as a “d” sound.  Instead of using their teeth and tongue, they touch their tongues to the alveolar ridge.
  4. Tongue near the palate (roof of the mouth) versus the back of the throat.  German speakers typically pronounce the “h” sound as in the word “hello” toward the back of their throat, versus at the roof of the mouth.

Air Flow and Speech

We also separate the sounds into the way the air moves or the way the air stops in the mouth or throat, and we call this manner of articulation.  Let’s learn some different manners of articulation!

  1. Fricatives.  Fricatives are consonants produced by forcing air through a narrow channel made by placing two articulators close together. These may be the lower lip against the upper teeth, in the case of  “v” as in “give” and “f” as in “food.”   Fricatives can also be pronounced with the back of the tongue against the hard palate (roof of the mouth), in the case of  “sh” as in “shoe.”  A particular subset of fricatives are the sibilants. When forming a sibilant, one still is forcing air through a narrow channel, but in addition the tongue is curled lengthwise to direct the air over the edge of the teeth.  English sounds, “s”  as in “see,” “z” as in “zoo,” “sh” as in “shoe,” and “s” as in “measure”  are examples of sibilants.  Dutch speakers often pronounce the fricative sound “th” as “t” or “d”.  For common English sounds that are challenging for the Dutch person to speak, click here.
  2. Stops.  Stops are consonants produced by stopping the airflow before it leaves the mouth.   Polish, Portuguese, Malaysian.  For example, Arabic, Creole French, German, Italian, Indonesian, Hindi, Bermese, Polish, Portuguese, Malyasian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Catalan, Greek, Gujarati, Ilokano, Mayalalam, Punjabi, Russian, Romanian, Tagalog, Tamil, Tai, Turkish Urdu, Vietnamese, and Yoruba speakers commonly do not let the breath out after speaking the stop sounds “p,” and/or  “t,” and/or “k” at the beginning of words.
  3. GlidesGlides (also known as semi-vowels) are produced by the air moving smoothly along the surface of the palate (roof  of the mouth) or lips as in the sounds “y” as in “yes,” “w” as in “wet,” and “h” as in “hello.”  Hindi speakers commonly do not use the glide sounds “y” and “h.”
  4. Liquids.  Liquids are consonants that fall between fricatives and glides.  They do not  have an air stream but it is not turbulent like fricatives.  Taiwanese, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, and Cantonese speakers usually are challenged by the English speech sounds “l” and “r.”
  5. Affricates.  Affricates  are sounds that begin by almost stopping the airflow and then  releasing the airflow.  Hewbrew speakers often pronounce the English affricate sound “ch” as in the word “child” as “sh” as in the word “she.”  When the speaker does, this, the sound becomes a fricative instead of an affricate because the airflow is not stopped.

Turn the Voice on or Turn it Off

We also focus on whether a sound is “voiced” or “unvoiced.”  For example, Ninety-one percent of Arabic speakers pronounce the “z” sound at the end of words without using the “voice box”.  When the Arabic speaker pronounces the “z” sound without the voice turned on, the “z” is no longer a “z.”   It becomes an “s” sound.

Consonants, Vowels, and Diphthongs

Speech sounds can be categorized into individually pronounced consonants, consonants that are combined (blends and consonant clusters), vowels, and diphthongs.  The English language has 23 consonant sounds.   Let’s take a look at consonants that are combined.

  1. Blends and Clusters.  There are eight English “r” blends.  For example, “pr” as in the word “pride” and “fr” as in the word “free” are “r” blends.  There are five English “l” blends such as the blends “gl” as in the word “glide” and the “bl” blend as in the word “blend.”  There are seven “s” clusters.  For example, the word “sky” contains the “sk” cluster and the word “small” contains the “sm” blend.  Wow!  We also have blends and clusters in the English language that have three sounds!  Take, for example, the word “spring” or “scribble.”  Often times, Arabic speakers are challenged by pronouncing the three-sound blends because they “roll” the tongue with the pronunciation of the “r” sound.
  2. Vowels.  There are 13 vowels in the English language.
  3. Diphthongs.  Diphthongs are combinations of different vowels.  There are seven diphthongs spoken in the English language.

How to get Involved

Hopefully, this gives you some insight on the components that underlie accent reduction/accent modification.  If you yourself are interested in seeking more information about how accent modification can benefit you or your employees specifically, our specialists at Master Your Accent are happy to talk with you.  Contact or call (920) 362-2359.  At Master Your Accent we are committed to helping you or your employees decrease the risk of misunderstandings and achieve full expression of skills, talents, spirits and personalities. 

Your First Step

Download the FREE 3 Simple T-variations Kit at masteryouraccent.comYou’ll discover the difference between stressed/precise T, Flap T, and Unreleased T.  Those 3 concepts can result in you speaking with a more natural American-sounding accent.  Your listeners won’t have to strain to understand you as much and your frustration and barriers will diminish.

Helpful Resources

If you enjoyed this list and benefited from it, and want to feel even more supported to shape your American accent, we hope you find value in:

 Common English Vowel Sound: Repair Communication and Limit Frustration

How the Dalai Lama’s Accent Caused him Embarrassment

The Letter T: A Trick for American English Accent

How to Ease into Accent Modification: Part 1

How to Ease into Accent Modification: Part 2

Pronouncing English Words as they are Spelled Causes Problems

How to Repair Communication Breakdown & Limit Frustration Caused by English Vowel Sound

3 Steps to Finding your Challenge Sounds

Share your Experiences, Comment, or Ask Questions

We hope this blog was valuable to you.  Click on the comments section at the end of this article, scroll to the bottom, and leave a comment and/or question.  We’ll be happy to respond.  It is Master Your Accent’s mission to empower you to communicate your message clearly the first time.  When you can communicate clearly the first time, you’re confident.  That means you can fully express your skills, talents, personality, and spirit!

Here’s to you shaping your American accent!

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