Is there something missing in your English fluency? Do you have this gut feeling [feeling in your stomach] that you should speak better than you do, that you could be more fluent, but there’s a missing piece to the puzzle?
It’s a story that repeats itself over and over again: you’ve studied plenty of English, learned the grammar, done everything you were told to do, and maybe you even lived in an English speaking country. But still after all the hard work and sacrifice, you don’t feel you’re as fluent as you could or should be.
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To your disappointment you still have a thick accent. You still have trouble with the fluidity of your speech. You still can’t fully understand native speakers. And even when you speak with perfect grammar, sometimes people don’t understand you.
But you have to accept it, right? I mean, we’ve learned that as adult language learners, we can’t expect too much, that it’s nearly impossible to reduce our accent in the target language, so why should we even try, right?
There is a Better Way
I know all of this because this is my story too. I have experienced the exact same frustrations with my language learning.
I’ve experienced this with both my Spanish and Portuguese learning, and as a teacher I’ve worked through it with my own students and members of the RealLife English International Community.
But I’m here today to tell you that there is a better way. If you are willing to open your mind and change how you think about language learning, to learn and to build a few key daily habits, and above all to persevere, then you will experience dramatic improvement in your English fluency in a relatively short amount of time.
If you’re a non-native teacher, you can kill two birds with one stone [take care of two important things with one effort] by improving not only your own perception and pronunciation, but also by learning how to effectively teach it. The rest of this article will explore the three pillars of successful pronunciation training and give you some important resources to move forward.
- Rhythm & Stress: The musicality that guides the way natives speak
- Sound Morphing: How native speakers cut and combine their words
- Music, Imitation & Mimicry: How you improve your accent by imitating native speakers
But first I would like to invite you to watch a truly amazing example of language learning heroics that illustrates much of what we’re talking about. In the video below, American polyglot teacher Idahosa Ness raps in 8 languages and presents an innovative new accent reduction approach called the Mimic Method.
The Powerful Connection Between Fluency and Pronunciation
For the majority of intermediate and advanced learners (including most teachers), effective accent reduction training could very well be the single most powerful, direct, and fastest way to improve your fluency. In fact, more and more academic studies are showing miraculous results from its application.
One such example of accent reduction research is a recent Northern Arizona University Study showing that in just 6 weeks of pronunciation training (at a mere 2 hours per week) learners experienced a 48% increase in comprehensibility (the ability for others to understand) compared to a 3% decrease for the control group (the group that did not receive the training) as evaluated by native speakers.
This is just one study, of course, but there are plenty more pointing in this direction. In addition, if you start paying attention to good language learners and if you experiment with your own pronunciation, you’ll start to connect the dots [see the patterns].
Here’s a fun and interesting video by accent reduction expert Paddy Kennedy that explains much about this.
The Three Pillars of Great Pronunciation
1. Stress, Rhythm, and Intonation (Musicality)
“If music is sound, and sound is language, that means that language is music.”
-Idahosa Ness, Mimic Method (from the first video in this article)
The huge importance of musicality in the English language is undeniable to more and more English teachers, learners, and researchers. The only questions to be answered are about the ideal combination of ingredients for optimal accent training, and how to apply them to our learning and teaching.
In the video above, English accent expert, Paddy Kennedy calls it a beat-driven language. English teaching innovators, Jason R. Levine (Fluency MC) and Rachel Smith (Rachel’s English) describe the English rhythm as stress-timed.
Here’s a powerful introduction to the topic by Fluency MC, as he describes the stress, rhythm and rhyme and ties it all together with intonation in what he calls shrinking and linking.
The point is that if you can develop an awareness of the rhythm and stress of English (which is very different than other languages), and combine that with a feel for intonation, you’ll naturally start to tune in to the musical background patterns that guide the way natives speak.
This awareness will open you up to a whole new perception of the language, which will show you the hidden logic of sound morphing (how natives cut and mix their words) and build a base for you to actually imitate it with music & mimicry (how to improve your accent by imitating native speakers).
2. Sound Morphing (plus Shrinking & Linking)
If you listen to the way native speakers actually talk, you will discover that we don’t speak how you learned. A few of the most common examples are: Wanna (want to), Gonna (going to), Gotta/“Godda” (Got to), Lemme (Let me).
We also do this as we connect or link words. For example, a native speaker will rarely enunciate “a lot of,” but we say “a-lah-duh.” Another example is, “Did you see her?” (We often say “Dju-see-er?” or “Ju-see-er”). These are just a few examples, but if you start to pay attention, you’ll notice them everywhere.
The reason people have problems understanding native speakers isn’t because we speak too fast.
The truth is that we cut our words, connect them, and shorten the sounds based upon the musical rhythm of English, and it ends up coming out very differently than what traditional methods teach. This is what we call sound morphing.
A lot of people incorrectly attribute this to colloquial speech, or the bastardization of American English. While it’s true that we should not write like this (at least in formal contexts), and that British people speak differently than Americans in a lot of ways, sound morphing is a universal occurrence in formal and informal contexts, in all English speaking countries and accents.
This is a fact of the English language.
To understand why we sound morph, or shrink and link, we need to deepen our perception and feel the stress-timed rhythm of the English language together with intonation, which we talked about in the first pillar.
In the video below, master pronunciation teacher, Rachel Smith, goes to the very heart of why native speakers do this by putting it in its musical context, showing us how the stress-driven beat of the language creates a rhythm that alternates between unstressed function words (which we tend to cut, morph or flatten) with stressed content words (that contain the meaning).
3. Mimicry, Imitation, and Rap Music (Application & Practice)
The application of these ideas and practice of these sounds is definitely the most dynamic, unexplored, and innovative aspect of accent training. This is an important reason why few people are learning this, and even fewer are teaching it. Another reason is that the conventional grammar-focused approach does little to recognize this as a valid component of language learning.
However, the ideas AND results are out there and they speak for themselves, and there are a handful of talented teachers applying this, systemizing it, and innovating the industry.
Now that we’ve developed a basis for understanding and identifying the rhythm of English (stress-timed), and how it guides the way native speakers cut, shrink and link words (sound morphing), let’s talk about how we can apply it.
Remember, the best way to start is to relax, play around with these ideas, and start imitating the sounds today. I’ve presented a lot of ideas, but the only way to really adapt to this new perspective and apply it to your learning is to follow your curiosity and experiment.
Dynamic Techniques & Resources
Learn Native Pronunciation with TV Shows
I’m amazed how many excellent English speakers I’ve met who tell me they learned by watching TV shows (probably the one I’ve heard the most is Friends).
Why is that?
The language and pronunciation in Sitcoms like Friends is very close to how natives speak in day-to-day life (as proven by several academic studies). So by mimicking conversation from series like this, you can greatly improve you pronunciation AND understanding of native speech (in addition to other benefits, like practical vocabulary and cultural awareness).
This is why we created our course, Fluent with Friends, that teaches English with the TV series Friends, to help you understand and speak fluent English. Sound interesting? Click here to sign up and learn more.
Imitating native pronunciation with rap music
This is one of the most dynamic, and effective ways to adapt your perception and muscles of articulation to the rhythm and pronunciation of the English language. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met English learners who have surprised me with their native-like pronunciation, only to tell me that they learned to speak like that listening to rap music.
If you already like rap music or are interested in learning like this, I recommend choosing a song you like or think you would like and practice it every day for 20 minutes. Find one that isn’t too fast or loaded with slang, and download the free recording/editing software audacity so you can slow it down and gradually adapt to the normal speed (at its regular speed it’s very fast). Audacity also allows you to record and overlay it to compare your pronunciation.
Talented rapper/teacher Fluency MC also creates his own rap music specifically to teach English on his world famous Collolearn youtube channel, and Idahosa Ness is creating a product to teach English learners how to do this called The Flow of English. Here’s a great article by Idahosa on How to Freestyle Rap in a Foreign Language.
Other types of music, such as pop music, are nice and they help in a general way, but rap music is the most effective because as it the closest to the natural spoken rhythm. If you have a problem with the lyrics, which are often inappropriate, I recommend searching for conscious rap music.
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Here are some more resources to check out:
- 3 Powerful Fluency Tips that You Wont’ Learn in School
- 7 Tips to Drastically Improve Your Pronunciation
- RealLife English Youtube Channel
- Rachel’s English Youtube Channel
- Fluency MC on Youtube (his site FluencyMC.com)
Check out my Presentations on Pronunciation Techniques
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I’d like to invite you to watch a presentation I gave on this topic in a recent MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) I was invited to present to a worldwide audience on WizIQ.
If you enjoyed this article and lesson, I highly recommend you check out our course Fluent with Friends. By signing up here you’ll be invited to watch some really useful, free lessons, and you can see if the course is right for you 🙂