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Are You Working on Your Accent the Wrong Way? 😳 Here’s What to Do Instead

From time to time, I hear from non-native speakers who are concerned that they’re doing the wrong thing while working towards a more natural accent.

As far as I’m concerned, if you, or even better, the people who are listening to you speak, can hear a difference in how you sound, then it’s not possible for you to do anything wrong.

But if you feel like you’re not getting the results you want, or progress seems really slow, then you may be doing a few things that could be holding you back.

Let’s talk about seven things you may be doing wrong that are slowing down your progress on your accent.

#1 Not Immersing Yourself in English

The first thing you may be doing wrong is not immersing yourself in English.

Here’s the thing: If you truly want to improve how you sound in English, you need to be immersing yourself in English as much as possible.

When you’re learning a language, you need to be listening to high quality input in order to produce high quality output.

In other words, you need to be listening to English that sounds good, that sounds the way you want to speak in order to start doing that yourself.

Your experience working on your accent will be different based on the circumstances of your life.

It may seem easier to have a more natural accent if you live in an English speaking country, but that’s only if you’re immersing yourself in English while you’re there.

There are many people who do six-month or year-long exchange programs in the US who only speak their native language with their friends.

It’s not enough to simply go somewhere; you have to immerse yourself in the language.

This is good news for those of you who are learning back home in your native country.

You can create an immersion experience for yourself while living in your home country as long as you listen to English as much as possible:

  • Change the default language on your phone, computer, or other devices to English.
  • Speak to the Google Assistant, Alexa, or Siri in English.
  • Listen to the news in English, music in English, your favorite TV shows in English, or full-length movies in English.
  • Listen to podcasts and feel like you’re right there having a conversation with people.
  • You can even try to gather a group of friends to practice speaking English together.

It may not be possible to listen to English 100% of the time, but do what you can to immerse yourself in the language.

The more you listen to the way English is actually spoken, the easier it’s going to be for you to produce that yourself.

#2 Not Choosing One English Accent to Focus On

The next thing you may be doing wrong when working on your accent is not choosing one accent to focus on.

I want to be clear here.

I’m not suggesting that you choose a very specific regional dialect to practice.

You may find that more helpful later on in your accent journey.

What I mean is deciding whether you’re going to work on British English or American English, Australian English, Irish English, New Zealand English, South African English, or any other variety of English.

If you really want to focus on sounding more American and developing an American accent, you need to hit pause on all of those British English videos, at least for a little while.

(I know that that can be challenging. There are some really good British videos on YouTube!)

However, if you want to achieve a specific accent and not a more global English accent, then you need to focus on listening to only that accent.

Otherwise, you’re going to get interference from other varieties of English and it’s going to slow down your progress.

If you just want a clear accent in English and you’re not so concerned about the regional dialect, then don’t worry about this.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with speaking English with a more global English accent.

But if you want an American accent, you need to stop listening to so many Brits.

If you want a British accent, you need to stop listening to so many Americans.

At times you’ll have to say no to something for at least a little while in order to work towards something that’s more important to you right now.

(I won’t be offended if you stop watching my videos for a while. I know how it goes.)

#3 Listening to People Who Speak Too Slowly

The next thing that may be holding you back on your accent reduction goals is listening to people who speak too slowly or who speak with a “teacher voice.”

You may notice that I talk a lot about sounding more natural in English and I do my best to talk as naturally as possible.

While I do understand why it may be more comfortable to listen to people who speak more slowly, or who use a teacher voice and clearly enunciate everything, this can slow you down at a certain level of working on your accent.

If you want to sound natural in English, you need to listen to people who are speaking naturally.

You need to train your ear to understand the rhythm and melody of the language, to understand the features that are part of natural speech.

You may think people are speaking quickly because you’re not listening for the way that they’re emphasizing key words; you’re trying to listen to every single detail of what they’re saying.

When you listen to people who are speaking at a natural pace, or they’re speaking more conversationally and interacting with their friends, you get used to listening to the type of English that we use in everyday conversations.

You probably don’t want to sound like you’re giving a presentation every time you speak English; we only do this in a certain time and place.

That’s why you need to listen to people who speak the way you want to sound.

It’s also important to make sure you’re challenging yourself to improve your listening skills.

You should always try to listen to English that’s just a little bit harder than what feels comfortable.

This will ensure you keep making progress with your listening skills, which often translates into a better accent.

After all, if you can’t hear what’s going on in natural speech, it’s going to be hard for you to produce it.

Whenever possible, listen to real-life English.

You can still listen to educational resources, but make sure you’re supplementing what you’re listening to with more natural speech.

I highly recommend listening to a variety of English and focusing on people who speak naturally.

This will help you get closer to your own accent goals.

#4 Not Listening to and Analyzing Short Clips

The next thing that may be holding you back when working on your accent is not listening to and analyzing short clips.

I just talked about listening to high quality English where people are speaking naturally.

At times, you’re going to be doing more passive listening, just taking in the information, listening to how people sound, and not really imitating it too much.

However, if you want to use your listening skills to work on your accent, you need to listen to shorter clips.

By short clips, I mean listening to certain phrases, thought groups and sentences.

Try to listen to five to 10 seconds at a time or just one sentence, and then analyze what’s going on in that sentence:

  • How can you hear the person’s pitch rise?
  • How do you hear the volume change?
  • How do you hear them link different words together?

You need to be able to analyze what’s going on in these short clips in order to do it yourself.

You could easily spend an hour analyzing what’s going on in three sentences of someone’s speech and trying to produce it yourself.

#5 Shadowing Without Analyzing and Imitating What You Hear

That leads me into the next thing you may be doing wrong. You may not be making progress on your accent if you’re shadowing, but not analyzing and trying to imitate what’s going on in what you’re listening to.

To be perfectly honest with you, I had never heard of shadowing until I started teaching English online and working with more independent learners.

Shadowing is not a technique that I ever learned in teacher training.

What we do learn when teaching pronunciation and accent is to listen and repeat while focusing on a specific feature.

If you’re spending a lot of time “shadowing,” but you’re not analyzing and trying to produce what you hear, it’s not going to get you the results you want.

It’ll probably help your listening skills and help you get more comfortable with the way the language flows, but it won’t necessarily improve your accent unless you’re focused on producing what you hear.

I often have to remind people that you need to be able to identify what you’re listening to in order to produce it yourself.

If you don’t know that something exists, you won’t be able to produce it.

So if you’re shadowing without understanding what’s going on in what you’re listening to, it’s going to be really hard for you to reproduce these exact features when you’re speaking English.

That’s why I suggest focusing on one specific feature of the American accent when you’re listening to people speak.

I give more guidance on how to do this in my video on how to use your listening skills to reduce your accent.

If you’re going to invest so much time and energy into listening to English in order to shadow it, you want to make sure you’re focusing on the right things so that you get results.

#6 Spending Too Much Time on the Pronunciation of Sounds, Not on Rhythm and Melody

Another reason that you may not be making the progress you want on your accent in American English is that you’re spending too much time on the pronunciation of sounds and not enough time on the rhythm and melody of the language.

In other words, you may be spending too much time on the articulation of consonant and vowel sounds and not enough time on stress and intonation.

If you’ve been watching my videos, you probably already know how much I emphasize stress and intonation and how it can help you sound more natural.

This wasn’t always the case. Many years ago, I used to focus on helping my students pronounce certain sounds.

Obviously, the pronunciation of consonants and vowels does matter and it can help people understand you, but if you’re not stressing words correctly, you’re still not going to be able to pronounce them correctly.

Emphasizing the right syllable of a word is key to making sure people understand what word you’re using.

In fact, if you stress the word correctly but still mispronounce a couple of sounds, the person may understand you because the word sounds closer to what they expect.

I’m not trying to get you to sound just like a native speaker.

I want you to improve your accent so that you speak more clearly, you are more easily understood, and you can communicate more effectively.

For most people, stressing the key words of their sentence and using intonation to communicate additional meaning can help them get their ideas across much more clearly than pronouncing every sound accurately.

You know as well as I do that it can be really challenging to change the way you pronounce certain sounds if you’ve been doing it a different way your entire life.

That’s why I emphasize getting the sounds close enough and focusing more attention on your meaning and how clearly you’re communicating it.

If you’re going to focus attention on pronouncing sounds more accurately, work on the ones that are most commonly mispronounced by speakers of your native language.

Focus more attention on improving how you pronounce sounds that do affect whether or not people understand you.

For a lot of people, that’s the two “th” sounds (/θ/ and /ð/), the /l/ sound, the “ch” or /tʃ/ sound, and a few others.

My point is if you’re only working on how you pronounce sounds and you’re not focusing attention on the rhythm and melody of English, then you’re still not going to sound natural when speaking.

You may still make pronunciation mistakes but have a more natural-sounding accent if you really use stress and intonation well.

Be sure you’re focusing your time and energy on the aspects of English that will get you results more quickly.

#7 Jumping to Fast Speech Too Quickly

The last thing you may be doing that’s slowing down your progress on your accent is jumping to fast speech too quickly.

In my experience, many non-native English speakers spend too much time on the pronunciation of consonant and vowel sounds and then they skip right over everything in the middle and jump all the way to speaking more quickly.

When people are focusing on fast speech, they’re focusing on reductions, informal contractions, the way we smush words together and link them together with connected speech.

However, if you jump all the way to linking without thinking about why linking even happens, you’re not going to get the results you want on your accent.

You’re going to sound like you’re forcing it; you’re not going to sound natural.

In order for linking, connected speech, reductions, and informal contractions to sound natural, you need to focus on word and sentence stress first.

Once you’ve got a good command of word and sentence stress, then focus on breaking your ideas into thought groups.

Linking happens within thought groups.

So if you’re not separating your ideas logically, it’s going to be hard for you to link the right words together.

Personally, I feel like linking, connected speech, reductions, and informal contractions are finishing touches.

You should work on them much later on in your accent reduction journey.

The one exception to this is using standard contractions in everyday speech, because when you don’t use them, you won’t sound natural.

In my experience, when you get word and sentence stress right and you start breaking your ideas into thought groups, linking and connected speech happens more naturally.

You don’t need to force it.

It will happen naturally as you continue to create more contrast between stressed syllables and unstressed syllables, stressed content words and reduced function words.

Don’t get caught up in all of these more advanced aspects of the American accent.

Focus your attention where you’re going to get the most results.

Get Feedback to Make Faster Progress on Your Accent

If you want to make faster progress on your accent, I encourage you to get feedback from someone who can identify what your issues are.

You don’t necessarily need to work with a coach every week for a year in order to get results on your accent.

You may simply need a little more direction from someone who can identify what you’re doing right and what needs a little more work.

If you’d like to meet with me and get my feedback on your accent, consider joining me for a Clarity Consultation.

Your Turn

Now, I’d love to hear from you!

What would you like to change in order to make faster progress on your accent?

Have any of these tips inspired you to think differently about the way you’re working on your accent?

Leave a comment and let me know.

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