Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing from a lot of non-native speakers who are concerned that they sound monotonous, robotic, bored, or even annoyed when they’re speaking English.
They’ve been working on their accent, but they feel like something is missing.
When you’re trying to improve how you sound in English, you’ll find a lot of tips out there. (You can find quite a few of them right here!)
But if you really want to speak with a more natural accent, you need to understand what connects all of these concepts together.
That’s why we need to talk about contrast.
Why You Need Contrast for a Natural Accent
To sound more like a native English speaker, you need to increase the contrast in your speech.
Contrast is when there’s a significant, noticeable, obvious difference between two concepts.
Think about light and dark, hot and cold, tall and short, big and small.
When you’re speaking English, you need to create more contrast using your voice in order to clearly distinguish between the words that truly matter and those that don’t.
This contrast creates the natural rhythm and melody of English, which is why mastering contrast will help you sound more like a native speaker.
In this article and video, you’ll learn how to create contrast with your voice.
Specifically, we’re going to talk about pitch, syllable length volume and how much you move your mouth on vowel sounds.
As you continue to get more control over your voice, you’ll discover other ways to use contrast to speak English more effectively.
Let’s get started!
Create More Contrast in Pitch Levels
First, let’s talk about pitch.
To sound more natural in English, you want to create more contrast between the pitch levels in your voice.
Pitch refers to the highness or lowness of your voice, or the frequency of the vibrations from your voice.
If you feel like you sound monotone when you speak, you may not have enough contrast between the high pitch levels and the low pitch levels in your voice.
In English, we usually speak within four main pitch levels.
When syllables or words don’t matter, we usually say them at our baseline pitch, a neutral sound where our voice naturally rests.
Watch the video and listen to how I say these function words: of, to, and, but, have, will.
When a syllable is stressed, we say it one step above the baseline pitch.
Consider how I say these words in the video: toDAY, inSIDE, REsearch, communiCAtion, indiVIDual, fanTAStic.
If you listen carefully, you can hear that the unstressed syllables are at my baseline pitch, but my pitch rises on the stressed syllables: toDAY, inSIDE, REsearch, communiCAtion, indiVIDual, fanTAStic.
Combined with the other elements of stress, this contrast helps you pronounce the word accurately and make it clear which word you’re using.
We emphasize the most important words in an idea, sentence, or thought group by raising our pitch even more.
This is when our pitch rises to its highest point two steps above our baseline.
Try these examples:
- We’ve lived here for YEARS.
- I love learning LANGuages.
- Her birthday is on SUNday.
- Let’s go inSIDE – it’s going to RAIN.
As you can hear, the contrast between words spoken at a lower pitch and ones at a higher pitch help you identify the most important words.
We hit the lowest pitch level one step below your baseline at the end of a declarative sentence.
Let’s try these examples again, paying attention to the drop at the end:
- We’ve lived here for YEARS. ⤵️
- I love learning LANGuages. ⤵️
- Her birthday is on SUNday. ⤵️
- Let’s go inside – it’s going to RAIN. ⤵️
This steep drop from the highest pitch level down to the lowest pitch level signals that your thought is complete.
This is called falling intonation, and it makes it clear that you’re done speaking so that the other person can respond.
This consistent rise and fall throughout your speech is what gives English its natural melody and flow.
It’s essential for a natural accent.
In my experience, many non-native speakers move between just two pitch levels, even when they’ve been working on their word and sentence stress.
By exploring your pitch and increasing the control you have when moving between pitch levels, you’ll improve how you sound in English.
Creating Contrast By Holding Lengthened Syllables
Next, let’s talk about syllable length or how long you hold certain syllables when speaking.
In every word, you’ll notice that one syllable is significantly longer than the rest.
That means it’s stressed, or emphasized, and it should stand out more than the rest.
In a complete sentence, you’ll hear these longer, sustained syllables on the most important words.
The less important words and syllables will be shortened, even reduced.
The duration of these lengthened, held syllables contrasted with the shorter, reduced ones creates the natural rhythm of English.
This is really challenging for many non-native English speakers because the rhythm of your native language is most likely different.
Many languages are syllable-timed, which means the beats between each syllable are even.
English is stress-timed, which means the beats come between these lengthened syllables.
To understand this difference, you can think about dancing. 💃
For example, salsa follows a certain rhythm: fast, fast, sloooow; fast, fast, sloooow; one, two, three; five, six, seven.
You’re moving quickly on some steps and then pausing and holding on a particular beat.
The spoken rhythm of English is kind of like that too.
You’re rushing on the less important words and syllables, and then lingering on the ones that truly matter in order to emphasize their importance.
It can take practice to really hold the lengthened syllables if you’re not used to it, just like it can take a lot of work to become an excellent dancer.
I encourage you to practice stress using a rubber band in order to encourage yourself to really hoooold that lengthened syllable.
Let’s return to our examples:
- We’ve LIVED HERE for YEARS.
- I LOVE LEARNing LANGuages.
- Her BIRTHday is on SUNday.
- Let’s GO inSIDE – it’s GOing to RAIN.
Using Volume and Contrast Between Loudness and Softness
Now let’s look at how contrast in volume helps you improve how you sound.
We often don’t spend much time talking about the loudness or softness of your voice with regards to your accent because many languages use loudness in order to emphasize important words.
(In fact, some languages use volume so effectively that the challenge in English is actually to back off of your volume in order to not sound like you’re yelling.)
Volume helps you emphasize key syllables in words because stressed syllables will be louder, whereas reduced syllables will be quieter, as if they’re hiding.
Just as we rush through words that don’t really matter as much, really holding the ones that do, we can say less important words at a lower volume, while increasing our volume to emphasize key words.
The contrast between soft, hidden words and LOUD, OBVIOUS ONES will make your speech more interesting and engaging.
It keeps people listening for what truly matters.
As you continue to advance and improve your accent, you should experiment with the volume of your speech.
You can use a steady increase in volume to keep people’s attention, or you can shock and surprise people by shouting out one word more than the others.
- Step by step, day by day we got closer to our goal. (increase the volume gradually until the final word)
- Are you serious? (shout out the last word)
Like pitch and syllable length, getting control over your volume takes practice because it’s something that we often use without thinking about it.
Contrast in How Clearly You Pronounce Vowels
Last but not least, let’s look at how vowel clarity affects your accent.
Vowel clarity refers to how clearly we articulate or pronounce the vowel sound in a stressed syllable.
When we articulate sounds, we move our mouths to create the right shapes.
On stressed syllables of stressed words, we move our mouth more than on the reduced, less important ones.
In my video on how to sound more American, I explain how long vowels and diphthongs in American English require you to move your mouth more in order to get them to sound right.
Moving your mouth on vowels is especially important when a syllable is stressed because that means the vowel sound in that syllable will be longer, louder and higher in pitch, making it extra obvious.
Stressed vowel sounds will be extra clear and that means your mouth will move more to create that super obvious shape.
It can feel awkward to move your mouth so much if you’re not used to it, but this exaggerated shape is absolutely essential for a natural accent.
On a related note, long vowels are sometimes called tense vowels because you need to tense up, or use, more of the muscles of your mouth in order to create them.
When vowels are not stressed, they’re often reduced to a sound like the schwa /ə/ sound or the /i/ sound.
When you say these two sounds /ə/, /i/, you use very little mouth movement.
The sounds are relaxed inside your mouth.
When you try to clearly pronounce each and every sound in English, it can sound forced.
To improve your accent, try to speak with clear, properly produced sounds on and around stressed syllables.
You can relax your mouth and use less effort on unstressed and reduced syllables.
As an accent coach, I’ve noticed that my clients who get the best results usually watch me as I speak and move their mouths along with me in order to get the obvious exaggerated sounds right.
Watch someone who speaks clearly and pay attention to how much they move their mouth on stressed syllables of stressed words.
Notice how little effort they make on words that aren’t as important, then try to do the same.
How Contrast Works in Fast, Natural Speech
In this video, we’ve talked about how you need to create more contrast in pitch, syllable length, volume, and how much you move your mouth on stressed vowel sounds in order to have a more natural accent in English.
- You need to be able to move your voice between four pitch levels, clearly distinguishing between a high pitch and a low pitch.
- You have to be able to really hold and lengthen key syllables, while shortening the ones that don’t matter.
- You need to be able to increase your volume to emphasize key points, while backing off the rest of the time, so it doesn’t sound like you’re shouting out every single word.
- And you have to be able to move your mouth more when saying vowels in stressed syllables, while relaxing your mouth a little bit during the rest of the words.
When you’re learning about more advanced concepts like thought groups, connected speech, linking, and reductions, keep this contrast in mind.
You won’t suddenly sound more American because you start using reductions like “whaddya” or informal contractions like “gonna” if you’re not using this contrast throughout the rest of your speech.
Reductions and informal contractions happen naturally in fast speech because we’re trying to focus attention away from the words that don’t really matter.
These reductions should be less obvious because they’re hiding the less important words.
We link words together in order to make it easier and more efficient for our mouths to get to the words that we’re really emphasizing.
We stress words because they communicate the meaning of the sentence, and we want people to hear them as clearly as possible.
When you start doing this consistently in your own speech, you will definitely sound more natural!
With more contrast, you’ll have more variety in your speech and sound more interesting and less monotone or robotic.
Leave a comment and let me know which aspect of your voice you’re going to focus on first.
Are you going to practice contrast with pitch, syllable length, volume, or how much you move your mouth on vowel sounds?
For more tips on how to sound more natural, sign up for my free five-day email course with my top tips to help you improve your accent in American English.