My Method For Improving Pronunciation In English
Stephen Garratt (BA Oxon)
Do you have a strong Russian accent when you speak English? Do you want to improve the sound of your English, to make it sound more like a native English speaker?
Many teachers say that this is impossible to achieve. This is usually because they have never tried and if they did they would not know how to go about it.
It is true that reducing a foreign accent when speaking English is difficult and that it requires a great deal of concentrated effort. It is a long-drawn-out arduous procedure that calls for determination and commitment from the student as well as guidance from an experienced voice trainer.
For a successful transformation of English speech the following development of thought needs to occur in the student’s mind:
The speaker needs to be aware that his way of speaking English is not like that of a native speaker (often associated with feelings of shame and awkwardness).
He needs to want his English to sound like that of a native speaker.
He needs to model the sound of his English speech on that of a native speaker – his chosen trainer.
He needs to work hard at changing the sound of his English towards that of his mentor through a long series of exercises.
Students have to pass through stages 1 and 2 themselves. Stage 3 is a question of personal preference. Does the student wish to model his accent and intonation on American, British or Australian English, for example? (My own accent is classic non-regional British English)
But what about stage 4?
The first thing to understand is that changing your pronunciation is quite unlike other aspects of language learning. Broadening knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, phrasing, idioms etc is primarily a question of conscious study and self-confidence: opening ourselves up to the concept of meaning in English. Improving pronunciation and intonation, on the other hand, is a narrowing-down process in which the trainer gives the student only one option: “You MUST make your English sound like mine!” No width is given for self-expression or creativity. As such, this endeavour is out of kilter with most ideals of modern education, which is why most English teachers overlook it.
This training does not have to be grim relentless and humourless – indeed it should be none of these things – but it does call for precise focus and meticulous correction on the part of the tutor. He has to be in total control and 100% committed to conveying his student to a better quality of English sound.
The course starts by concentrating on the mechanics of making sounds – in other words how to use the various instuments of our vocal system (basically the lungs, throat, larynx, tongue teeth, palate and lips) in order to speak well in English. Behind all this the trainer needs to understand how the programme that controls these instruments works: these are the speech faculties of the mind.
We already know the probable speech imperfections of Russians. They are usually:
th (both hard and soft)
all dipthongs (but especially o as in “stone”)
However, we check ALL sounds, emphasising exactly how to make them correctly. We obviously spend a lot more time on the troublesome ones. I send out recordings of all the sounds together with a detailed explanation of how to make them using the constituent parts of the vocal system. Examples can be found on this website. Students are asked to copy the words, practising regularly out loud every day in front of a mirror. There is no light relief for lazy people. They have to go through this repetitive work in order to drill the new sound patterns into their minds so that they become a habit whenever they speak English.
The next step is to train the use of the new sounds by reading. I concentrate exclusively on pronunciation and fluency when listening to students reading; I am not interested at all in whether they understand what they are reading – and nor should the student at this stage. Correction of sound errors has to be rigorous pedantic and even a bit obsessive.
Altering a person’s sound in a foreign language is a bit like getting them off pernicious drugs. They are addicted to the sound of their native language, and their compulsion is to transfer their habit into English. Their subconscious protests at the pain of change and does everything to avoid kicking the habit. This is why I have to use dictatorial methods. “Cold turkey” is the only way! I have various techniques for compelling students to correcting obstinate errors. They are ruthless persistent and usually entertaining.
The readings become increasingly complicated. For later stages of tuition I use very difficult texts to reinforce the idea that for the time being pronunciation is more important than grasping meaning. In this way the student’s mind is set adrift in the sound world of English with few reference points of meaning to cling to; they have no choice but to think about how to make purely English sounds with my guidance. Also at this later stage I use shadow reading to improve flow and intonation. Students read texts out loud while listening to a recording of the same words through headphones.
I compare the whole process to taking a watch apart, looking at the pieces, putting them meticulously back together again, setting it on Greenwich Mean Time (ie London time), and making sure that it stays permanently and perfectly accurate. This inevitably takes a long time to achieve – how long depends on the student. It will never be less than three months and can be a lot more than this. Short frequent tutorials are much better than extended sessions at long intervals. I favour three or four lessons of 45 or 60 minutes per week, supplemented by practice out of class. It is impossible to work in groups. Skype works very well for my method (provided there are no technical problems), because it helps both me and the student to concentrate exclusively on the task in hand.
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