If you’ve spent any time working on your accent, pronunciation, or voice in English, then you’ve come across a ton of advice.
Go to just about any corner of the internet, and you’ll find videos, podcasts, articles, and message board discussions telling you exactly what you need to do to achieve your accent goals.
If you’re like most people, you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the information out there.
How do you decide what’s actually going to help you, and what may feel like a waste of time?
What I encourage you to do is experiment!
Try out some of the suggestions and see if they work for you.
Take what works and leave the rest.
You’ll probably find that some advice is more helpful at different stages of your accent journey.
You have to find what works for you.
That said, I think there’s outdated accent advice that’s probably holding you back.
In this video, I’m going to challenge some of the accent advice that I think distracts non-native speakers from their ultimate goals.
Let’s get started!
Question the Idea That Pronunciation is Everything
The number one piece of accent advice I would encourage you to question is the idea that pronunciation is everything.
I can’t tell you how many times a client has told me, “I’ve been spending so much time working on my pronunciation, but it’s not working.”
When most people think about pronunciation, they’re thinking about the articulation of sounds, or the way we pronounce certain sounds.
This leads to an overemphasis on the way the sounds are formed, the precise positioning of the mouth in order to get the sounds as clear as possible.
However, as you may have noticed, in words, sounds work together.
At the same time, people often focus on the pronunciation of specific words.
But you know from your experience speaking English that we very rarely say one word at a time.
Words happen in pairs, in partnerships, in phrases.
And sometimes we move our mouths differently in order to move through certain words more quickly.
If you’re spending so much time trying to fix your pronunciation by working through sounds one by one by one, you may be missing out on other aspects of your accent that will help you get faster results.
Besides that, if you’re spending a lot of time working on the pronunciation of words and you haven’t thought about word stress, or which syllable in each word receives the most stress, you’re still not going to get the pronunciation right.
Even if you manage to pronounce every sound accurately, if you don’t have the word stress right, then the word’s still going to sound “off.”
Depending on how a word is stressed in a sentence, we may emphasize it really clearly, or we may pull back and relax a little bit on that word.
At times, this changes how we pronounce vowel sounds, or even how we say certain function words.
Because some words are de-emphasized or even reduced, they may have weak forms.
(That’s one of the reasons you hear contractions.)
Rather than focusing exclusively on pronunciation, I encourage you to invest more time and energy in exploring stress, thought groups, and intonation.
As you’ll discover, stress, thought groups, and intonation help you package and present your ideas in a way that makes it easy for people to follow and understand.
That’s why I focus on them so much in my work with my clients and students.
This video on how to communicate clearly and confidently using your voice will help you get started.
Why You Should Focus on Meaning Rather Than Fast Speech
On the other end of the spectrum is a piece of accent advice that I feel people receive too soon.
You’ve probably heard someone say that connected speech, linking, reductions, and other aspects of fast speech will help you sound more like a native English speaker.
Here’s the thing: they’re not wrong.
Connected speech will help you sound more like a native speaker – eventually.
However, if you’re still at the very beginning of your accent journey, connected speech can seem overwhelming, challenging, and difficult.
It can make you feel like you’re mumbling or slurring your words.
Personally, I feel like it’s important to understand how connected speech, linking, and reductions work in order to help you understand native English speakers.
However, when it comes to working on them yourself, I feel like you’re skipping to the end.
It’s important to understand that connected speech and linking happen as a result of word and sentence stress and the contrast that comes between stressed syllables and unstressed or reduced ones.
We end up reducing sounds, linking words together, even dropping sounds in order to move through less important words more efficiently.
This focuses attention on the words that matter most, the words that convey the meaning of your sentence.
To reiterate my point, mastering stress and contrast comes first.
Connected speech and linking help you transition efficiently between words.
Again, this helps you focus attention on what matters.
These reductions should be less obvious, less distinct, less clear.
They shouldn’t stand out; they should happen effortlessly.
If you’re adding these reductions to your speech, but you’re not consistently stressing your words, it focuses extra attention on the words that don’t matter.
Instead, focus on emphasizing the words that carry your meaning, that present your ideas.
Make those more obvious through word and sentence stress.
Bring attention to them with your voice and how you package and present your ideas.
At the end of the day, your ideas matter much more than any of these tricks that will help you sound more like a native speaker.
When You’re Worried About Your Voice, You Forget About Your Ideas
Another piece of advice I strongly encourage you to question is that your goal should be to have a pleasant, pleasing voice in English.
What does having a pleasing speaking voice even mean?
For every person that comments that they like my voice, another person tells me how annoying I sound.
Here’s the thing: there are so many regional dialects in every English speaking country.
Depending on our perspective, we may prefer the accent and the dialect that we grew up with.
Or we may reject it and try to move towards a more “neutral” American accent, whatever that means.
(For more on the idea of a “general” American accent, check out this interesting analysis.)
A lot of times, our reactions to regional and local dialects carry a lot of bias. It’s always important to question why you’re having a reaction to the way someone sounds.
On top of that, criticizing someone’s accent, voice, or other aspects about the way they sound is a quick and easy way to make the person feel “less than.”
In most cases, we have to interact with other people through speaking.
Our voices are always on display.
If you’re on the phone, your voice is the only thing that someone hears.
Once you hear something negative about your accent and your voice, you start feeling self-conscious.
You stop focusing so much attention on your ideas.
You may find that that was the other person’s goal for criticizing how you sound.
The reality is it’s impossible to please everybody.
Everyone has a different idea of what a “lovely” speaking voice sounds like.
Rather than trying to please everyone, which we all know is impossible, I encourage you to think about why you want to change your accent and your voice.
Think about what you like about other people’s voices.
Is it actually how their voice sounds, or is it the emotions being conveyed through their voice?
Is it the way they present their ideas?
Is it easy for you to follow along with what they’re saying?
Try to dig deeper and find the root of this desire. You may find that these goals are easier to achieve!
You Don’t Need to Completely Avoid Rising Intonation and Vocal Fry
Here’s another piece of accent advice that really frustrates me because it’s so confusing.
It’s the idea that rising intonation and vocal fry are bad and you should avoid them entirely.
When you see all of the negative opinions about rising intonation or uptalk, you may think that you should never ever use these intonation patterns.
However, that’s simply not true.
First of all, rising intonation and non-final intonation, a slight rise, play an important role in organizing your thoughts and making them easy to follow and understand.
We use rising intonation at the end of yes/no questions, when turning a statement into a question, when repeating a question, and also sometimes between thought groups.
When you have more variety in your pitch and intonation, it helps you express your emotions and attitudes.
It makes you more relatable.
It helps you sound friendly and approachable.
When you hear criticism of uptalk, I want you to think about who this criticism is coming from.
If someone has a tendency to use uptalk or rising intonation patterns, what does criticizing them achieve?
Does it encourage them to speak up, or does it keep them silent?
It’s no secret that criticism of uptalk is deeply gendered and generational.
When you come across criticisms of uptalk and rising intonation, you often hear people mention vocal fry.
Vocal fry is when your voice creaks at the end.
It often happens when you’re using falling intonation at the end of sentences.
For me in my own voice, I find that vocal fry happens when I start with my pitch a little too high.
It’s harder for me to drop down into that lower pitch range.
Vocal fry also happens when you run out of breath, when you’re trying to fit too many words into a thought group and you don’t have enough breath behind it.
I also find that vocal fry occurs when my voice is tired, when I’ve been speaking for a long time.
Vocal fry may appear when you’re speaking with a lot of emotions, you’re using a wider pitch range, and it’s hard to drop from the highest pitch down to the lowest.
You may need a little more time to climb down more gently.
As I just mentioned, it’s important to think about who’s being criticized and who’s doing the criticizing.
Who ultimately benefits from telling someone that they speak with vocal fry (or an accent) and it affects how they sound?
Your Ideas Matter – Don’t Let Outdated Accent Advice Hold You Back
As far as I’m concerned, these four pieces of accent advice share one thing in common: they make you paranoid and they keep you silent.
It makes you feel like you are never going to achieve the goal of speaking confidently.
Instead of worrying so much about this accent advice, I want you to think about your ideas and what you want people to hear you say.
As I often say, your voice matters. Your ideas matter.
What you have to say matters so much more than how it sounds.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your accent and how you sound, but don’t let it hold you back.