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Keep Your Identity While Changing Your Accent

English learners all over the world have the same question: how can I speak more like a native speaker?
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A big industry has grown up around helping non-native English speakers change their accent. Accent is more than simply how you pronounce individual words. It also includes the stress and intonation patterns for whole sentences.

There are many books and software programs, online and in-person courses that promise to teach a "native accent." But is it really necessary to sound exactly like a native speaker? Some experts say it is not.

Eusebia V. Mont leads the Accent Modification Program at the University of Maryland’s Department of Hearing & Speech Sciences. Mont talked about it to VOA Learning English.

The Accent Modification Program serves students, faculty and the local community. Students come to the program for one or two school terms. They meet in a group for 90 minutes a week. Each student meets with one other student and a clinician for more individual work.

Altogether the program amounts to about 60 hours of learning in class. Mont says the time needed to improve is different for each student.

“The rate of progress absolutely depends on the type of accent it is, how long they’ve been speaking English, how often they speak English, how much exposure they have to the language; listening and speaking; so it’s a very individualized process.”

Everyone speaks with an accent of one kind or another. People often say they want to “lose” their accent, or lessen their accent. But it is more exact to describe such an effort as “adding” or “modifying” an accent. Mont says the purpose of accent modification is to give students tools to use when they need others to understand them more clearly.

“Our goal is not to eliminate the accent. I view accent as an extension of culture; an extension of a person’s individual identity - and I don’t work to eliminate any part of culture from an individual.”

Students in the program are looking toward the future. They will most likely work in English-speaking environments when they leave school. The program teaches them tools for this. For example, they learn how to give an “elevator pitch” – a short description of an idea – and to discuss their research. They also practice interviewing and giving presentations at work.
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The program teaches idioms and colloquial expressions as well. This helps students talk with native English speakers. The idea is to help them feel part of the English-speaking community in which they study, work and live.

Mont says that there are a few methods for modifying accent, but most have the same basis. One method is called the Compton method or Pronouncing English as a Second Language, or PESL. Arthur J. Compton developed the method in the 1980s for English learners who know English vocabulary and grammar fairly well. PESL teaching begins with a test to find out how the student’s native language affects different areas of pronunciation. Then, learners use practice materials to record their own voice and compare their pronunciation attempts to recordings of a native speaker.

Another method is the Tomatis Method, which uses special headphones and includes listening to electronically modified music and voices. This method is also used as a therapy with children who have autism or other conditions that can cause difficulty in language learning.

The methods used at University of Maryland are based on data from tests of participants, Mont says. She has found that the best method is the one that works for the teacher and student. So the team may switch and use a different method if the first choice does not work.

Learners who want to modify their accent often take a “do-it-yourself” approach, thinking they know exactly what to work on. But that is not as easy as it may sound. The participants at University of Maryland’s Accent Modification Program learn how to listen to and examine their own speech pattern. They also learn to produce separate sounds and then work on intonation of sentences. Over time, they build confidence in speaking understandably in particular situations: class discussions, phone calls, interviews and discussions of their research.

Accent modification is like any other tool, Mont says.

“When you need it, pull it out of the bag, and when you don’t need it, it’s fine to put it away… if you are using accent modification for work advancement, for example, then be comfortable in your home environment and with friends. Use the accent modification tools that you have learned when you need them.”

Mont’s final advice to English learners is not to expect to sound exactly like a native speaker.

“Don’t compare yourself to native English-speaking peers and colleagues. Unless it is an imitation or mimicking, you’re not likely to sound exactly like your native English-speaking peers, and that’s okay.”

And remember, even native English speakers do not all speak alike!

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