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Use Your Listening Skills to Improve How You Sound When Speaking English

Can you use your listening skills in order to reduce your accent and improve your pronunciation? That’s the question we’re going to answer today!

In order to improve how you sound in English, you need to increase your sensitivity to the characteristics and details of natural, native speech.

After all, if you can’t hear the way a native English speaker uses his or her voice, then you won’t be able to change the way you use your own!

To reduce your accent in English, you have to hear how the language differs from your native language.

How we use pitch, volume, syllable length, and breathing may be quite different from what you’re used to.

For example, it took me about 15 years of speaking Spanish in order to understand that I was using English intonation in Spanish.

Unfortunately for me, tone doesn’t work the same way in Spanish, so my expressive pitch created a very obvious American accent.

Through this workshop, you’ll learn which precisely which aspects of spoken English you need to tune your ear to in order to improve your pronunciation.

In addition, you’ll find out how to get more out of the listening resources and content you’re already consuming to improve your English.

Focused Listening

As we get started, I want you to take a moment to think about how much you focus on what you hear when listening to your favorite English resources.

In my experience, most people listen passively to English using resources like podcasts and videos from the internet.

When you listen passively, you surround yourself with the language in order to increase your exposure to native English speakers.

This can be quite helpful: you can hear different voices and experience different styles of speech and accents.

Once you progress past the intermediate level, you need to change your listening strategy in order to become advanced, proficient, and even fluent in English.

This is when you want to practice focused listening.

(Please note that you could describe this strategy as “active listening,” but this term is most often used for techniques you use to show someone that you “hear” them. That’s why I prefer the term “focused listening.”)

When you are using focused listening, you are tuning your ear and zeroing in on one particular aspect of the language.

When you focus on just one facet of English, you’re going to notice details you might usually miss when listening for enjoyment or relaxation.

When you hear these specific characteristics, it’s going to be much easier for you to produce them when speaking!

When you are using your listening skills to improve your pronunciation, I suggest you work with just one accent at a time.

While it can be tempting to expose yourself to a wide variety of English accents, they have unique features that can be challenging to distinguish as a non-native speaker.

If your goal is to achieve an American accent, then you should listen only to the American accent while you’re developing your awareness of its characteristics.

You can always analyze another accent later on in your language learning journey!

In the rest of this workshop, we’re going to focus specifically on what you should listen for in order to improve your accent through your listening skills:

  1. Listen for pitch changes
  2. Listen for loudness and softness
  3. Listen for syllable length
  4. Listen for stressed syllables and vowels
  5. Listen for stress in phrases
  6. Listen for sentence stress
  7. Listen for stress for emphasis
  8. Listen for tone of voice
  9. Listen for breathing and pausing
  10. Listen for phrasing and thought groups
  11. Listen for linking and connected speech
  12. Listen for reductions
  13. Listen for speed of speech

1. Listen for Pitch Changes

To start off improving your listening skills so you can improve your accent, you need to listen for pitch changes.

As an accent coach, I often notice that when someone has a really strong accent, it’s primarily because they’re taking their intonation directly from their native language and not varying their use of pitch at all.

In my opinion, a deeper understanding of pitch is absolutely essential for developing a natural accent.

To increase your awareness of pitch, choose one listening resource and focus solely on the pitch, or the highness and lowness of the person’s voice.

When you start using your listening skills to improve your accent, you become an observer who approaches your listening practice with curiosity.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much does this person’s pitch change when they speak?
  • How is this use of pitch different from my native language?
  • How does the person’s pitch change in order to communicate certain ideas?
  • Does the variation in pitch help them be more dramatic or convey a point in a more interesting way?
  • What else do they achieve by raising or lowering their pitch?
  • Can you follow along with what the person says thanks to the ups and downs of their pitch?
  • How does this person’s use of pitch differ from another person’s pitch?
For more on how pitch works in English, you can explore your pitch here

Paying attention to these differences will help you tune your ear and start making improvements in order to improve your overall accent in English.

2. Listen for Loudness and Softness

Next, focus your attention on the loudness or softness of people’s voices, or the volume.

Consider how English uses volume differently than your native language; volume can vary widely between languages!

For example, have you ever made a comment about how loud a non-native speaker of your language is?

Whether you meet a foreigner traveling in your country or interact with English speakers in their countries, you’ve probably noticed that they speak louder than you’re used to.

We are aware of this distinction because volume is used to achieve different purposes in various languages.

Volume communicates a lot of meaning in English, so in order to improve your accent you need to hear changes in the loudness and softness of people’s voices.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • When does the person’s voice get really loud?
  • When does the voice get really soft?
  • During which kinds of situations do you notice these volume changes?
  • Which words or syllable sound louder?
  • Which sound softer?

When you tune your ear to volume, you learn how to use loudness and softness in English more effectively.

For more information on the importance of volume in English, please watch this video: Speak Up! Use Your Volume to Speak English More Effectively.

If you can’t hear subtle changes in volume, it’s going to be challenging for you to create a natural-sounding accent in English.

3. Listen for Syllable Length

Now that you’ve increased your sensitivity to pitch and volume, you need to listen for syllable length.

In my experience, most non-native speakers struggle with being able to lengthen their syllables when speaking.

They can’t hold them as long as an English speaker would, and this creates an obvious non-native accent.

The main reason that you may not be lengthening your syllables is that you may not actually hear the difference between longer and shorter syllables.

When you’re working with one of your listening resources, focus specifically on lengthened syllables. You don’t even have to understand the words!

Instead, pay attention the rhythm that is created by longer and shorter syllables.

If you’re really struggling to sound like a native speaker, start with these three things:

  1. listen to for pitch;
  2. listen for volume; and
  3. listen for syllable length.

Syllable length matters because English is a stress-timed language, rather than a syllable-timed language.

This means that the rhythm is created by the beats between lengthened syllables.

Other languages are syllable timed, which means that each beat is one syllable long; in other words, the syllables are even in length.

Without awareness of lengthened syllables, you might not be able to hear why your accent doesn’t have the natural rhythm of English.

When I listen to fluent non-native speakers being interviewed in English, I often hear that they’re not lengthening their syllables.

You can do better: pay attention to lengthened syllables!

4. Listen for Stressed Syllables and Vowels

Let’s build on the three concepts we’ve already discussed; now that you’re a little more sensitive to pitch, volume, and syllable length, it’s time to talk about stress.

In particular, we’re going to focus on stressed syllables and vowels.

Rather than worrying about the sounds of English, I want you to pay attention to lengthened vowel sounds in stressed syllables.

A stressed syllable is longer, louder, and higher in pitch. This emphasis makes the vowel sound especially clear.

By focusing only on the vowel sounds that are most distinct in each word, you will start to hear the difference between long and short vowels.

Because the vowels on stressed syllables are most clear, they are the ones you want to ensure are accurate so that you sound more like a native speaker.

Remember, listen carefully to how native speakers stress their syllables and try to make your vowel sounds really obvious and clear.

As you become more sensitive to vowels, you’ll notice that there are actually pitch shifts within these vowel sounds.

For examples of how stressed syllables and clear vowels help you speak better English, watch the video on Number Stress: How to Pronounce Numbers Correctly in English. You can practice with even more examples while watching Word Stress in American English.

5. Stress in Phrases

Now that you’re paying attention to stress in general, we’re going to get even more specific.

To sound more like a native speaker, you need to listen for stress in phrases.

By focusing only on phrases, you’ll break the language you hear into manageable chunks, rather than worrying about a long, rambling, complicated sentence.

When listening to your resource, pick out a few different phrases and notice how stress works in these short chunks.

Identifying which words are stressed and which words are not stressed will help you hear – and eventually produce – the rhythm of English.

Focusing on short phrases enables you to imitate stress patterns in commonly used expressions so that you build confidence before moving on to longer statements.

For a clear example of stress in phrases, watch my video on How to Stress Phrases with “And” to Create the Natural Rhythm of English.

6. Listen for Sentence Stress

Once you’ve increased your confidence listening for stressed vowels and stress in phrases, you’re ready for the next step: it’s time to listen for sentence stress.

Sentence stress describes the words that are emphasized throughout the sentence.

Rather than getting into precise detail about which words are stressed in everyday speech, I just want you to listen for sentence stress yourself. Trust your ear!

(If you want more guidance on word and sentence stress, consider joining the Stress Simplified program.)

By developing your own listening skills so that you can hear which words receive the most emphasis in a sentence, you’ll be much closer to producing sentence stress on your own.

Tuning your ear to how native speakers signal which words are most important will help you understand what you hear and eventually create the natural rhythm of English.

For an example of how sentence stress can help you speak English more clearly, watch this video on How to Stress Short Words. You can also learn all about sentence stress and how it works.

7. Listen for Stress for Emphasis

Now that you’ve built up your understanding of how stress works in normal speech, you want to listen for stress for emphasis.

When you pay attention to stress for emphasis, you notice how native speakers put extra attention, extra force, or extra sounds on one particular word in order to make a point.

When native speakers change the expected rhythm of the sentence by stressing different words, they change the meaning of the sentence.

As you become more advanced, you have to tune your ear to be able to pick out and hear which words are being stressed.

Native speakers will put special emphasis on certain words in order to draw your attention to them so that you know that they are important.

In order to fully understand the meaning of a sentence, you have to be aware of these changes in stress.

Beyond that, using stress in this way will help you improve your accent and communicate your meaning more effectively.

For more guidance on how shifting stress can change the meaning of a sentence, watch this video on How to Say “I don’t know” with the Right Tone in American English.

8. Listen for Tone of Voice

As you’ve seen, native speakers can shift the meaning of the sentence by shifting the expected stress patterns.

This is one way that tone of voice is used to communicate meaning in English.

To sound more like a native English speaker, you need to remember this common saying: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Tone carries so much meaning in English.

By tuning your ear to the tone of voice people use to communicate their ideas, you’ll be able to understand native speakers and use the rise and fall of your voice to speak more clearly.

Notice how a change in pitch expresses certain emotions or attitudes. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why did this person raise their voice high?
  • Why did they drop their tone low?
  • Why does their voice sound flat?
  • How do I feel when I hear this person’s tone?
  • Do they sound certain or questioning? Authoritative or self-conscious? Angry or happy?

Listening to the person’s tone of voice gives you more clues about their meaning.

To better understand how pitch and intonation help you communicate your meaning, watch this video.

In my other workshop on How to Use Your Listening Skills to Improve Your Speaking and Conversation Skills, I explained how intonation connects your accent and the meaning behind your words.

As you become more sensitive to intonation, I encourage you to focus only on tone of voice when using your listening resource.

Simply listen to how the deeper meaning of the words is conveyed through rises and falls of the voice.

9. Listen for Breathing and Pausing

Now that you understand the key elements of accent reduction, we’re going to move on to the more advanced aspects of a natural-sounding accent.

Let’s discuss listening for breathing and pausing.

Pay attention to how native English speakers breathe in different places, or how they pause in the middle or at the end of a sentence.

Can you hear a pause between ideas?

Before you can break your own thoughts into manageable chunks, you need to listen for how native speakers use their breathing and pauses to communicate.

Choose one of your listening resources and listen specifically for breaths and pauses.

When you hear micro-pauses or breaths throughout the sentence, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why did the person pause in this place?
  • Were they simply taking a breath or trying to make a point?
  • How did the pause help me understand the meaning?

I often recommend speeches by former President Obama because he pauses so much when speaking.

You may also want to listen to TED talks because the speakers are giving a formal presentation with more pauses.

10. Listen for Phrasing and Thought Groups

Once you’re more sensitive to breaths and pauses, you need to listen for phrasing and thought groups.

Native speakers naturally break certain phrases into short chunks, often called thought groups.

Thought groups help our listeners distinguish between different ideas and follow what we’re saying.

To reduce your accent, you need to be sensitive to where you should break your thoughts into shorter chunks.

If you can’t hear the pauses between short phrases or identify thought groups, it will be hard for you to create them when speaking.

You can find more guidance on breathing, pausing and thought groups here.

11. Listen for Linking and Connected Speech

Once you can clearly hear sentence stress and thought groups, you can listen for linking and connected speech. As you’ll learn, they all work together.

When you listen to native speakers, you’ll hear that we link words together in order to speak more efficiently.

The most important words are clear, and the less important words are condensed.

As you’ll hear, this linking happens within thought groups. Pay attention to which words are connected and ask yourself why this happens.

By tuning your ear to the words that are combined, you’ll eventually be able to produce connected speech on your own.

12. Listen for Reductions

As you become more comfortable with connected speech, you’ll start to listen for reductions.

Reductions include words where certain syllables are dropped as well as words that are linked together and abbreviated.

For example, in commonly used words like “chocolate,” “February,” and “Toronto,” we drop certain syllables to make the word easier to say.

Moreover, we often use contractions or abbreviations in order to condense less important words.

These reductions happen because we want to focus attention on the stressed words.

Rather than starting with reductions, I encourage you to become more sensitive to word and sentence stress so that you hear how reductions happen naturally as part of the rhythm of English.

For more information on linking and reductions, head over to this video on fast speech in English.

13. Listen for Speed of Speech

Last but not least, you want to listen for how native speakers change their speed of speech.

In this case, we’re not talking about whether they speak quickly or slowly based on where they’re from.

Instead, you want to hear how they may speed up their speech when saying certain phrases or while making a certain point.

Consider how the person’s speed of speech draws attention to certain words or de-emphasizes words that don’t seem to be important.

You’ll notice that we’ll often slow down to emphasize key words or ensure a point is really clear. We may speed up when we’re excited about a topic or slow down because we’re bored.

Paying attention to the speed of speech will help you understand how to integrate the same elements into your own manner of speaking.

What to Listen To In Order to Improve Your Accent

Let’s talk about the resources you should seek out in order to strengthen your listening skills and improve your accent.

First, I suggest listening to podcasts because you will usually only listen to one or two people.

This will help you get more familiar with one person’s voice so you can tune into all of the elements we’ve discussed.

Interview series are also excellent resources. You’ll hear one voice that’s familiar and another voice that’s new to you each time that you listen.

In addition, I recommend listening to TED talks in order to hear how people use their voice and breath for effect when giving a presentation.

Similarly, speeches, such as commencement speeches, are often good resources for learning how powerful these different elements can be in communicating clearly and effectively.

You may also choose to listen to monologues, such as those given by comedians on late night TV programs.

You’ll become more comfortable with their particular style of speech and be able to hear how they use pitch, volume, stress, tone, and pauses for comedic effect.

Finally, for examples of more natural speech, watch vlogs on YouTube. This is when normal people speak into the camera and share details about their lives in a more conversational way.

To get the most out of these listening resources, start with one or two voices and really tune in to the thirteen aspects of accent we’ve discussed throughout this article.

If you’re listening to dozens of people, it can be distracting; to improve your accent through your listening skills, you want to find focus.

Finally, if you’re trying to tune your ear, it is much easier to choose short videos, podcasts, or interviews at the beginning.

Try to choose content that you can easily listen to a few times so that you’re really able to get the most information from your focused listening.

Your Turn

Now that you understand how to use your listening skills to improve your pronunciation and reduce your accent, I’d love to hear from you! Please share your favorite listening resources in the comments below.

Who do you like listening to? Why do you like the way they speak English?

Want to communicate clearly and confidently in English? Head over to this series of videos and find YOUR voice in English.

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