Accent modification can refer to either a foreign or a regional accent that you would like to change. It is really learning the sound system (or phonology) of a language or dialect. It can be “reducing” or “losing” an accent, or acquiring a new accent (as with actors for a role).
I. Foreign Accent Reduction
If you are a non-native speaker of English and would like to reduce (and perhaps eliminate) your accent, you can study the sound system of English. You may want to learn a Standard American English accent if you are living in the United States. You can also learn Standard British (known as Received Pronunciation). If you have a regional accent, such as a Southern or New York accent, you may wish to neutralize it and sound more General American.
– International Phonetic Alphabet and Discriminating Sound Segments – Vowels and Consonants
– Learn Phonological Rules
– Prosody (Suprasegmentals) – Learn Rhythm and Stress, Intonation, Phrasing, Flow
To do this, particularly if you are a non-native English speaker, you will learn the International Phonetic Alphabet to discriminate the distinctive sound segments (or phonemes) of American (or British) English. There are certain vowel distinctions which occur in English, but do not occur in most other languages. You will be given descriptions of the vowels according to how high or low, and how front or back the tongue is. For example, /i/, as in “eat,” is a high front vowel that is made with tongue tension. /I/, as in “it,” is also high and front, but the tongue is in lax position. The vowel /U/ in “pull” is lax, but the vowel /u/ in “pool” is tense. These distinctions are not made in most languages, so that non-native speakers must learn how to distinguish them when they speak. Many non-native speakers of English also have difficulty distinguishing between the vowels in “bet” /ε/ and “bat” /ǽ/, or the vowels in “cat,” “cot,” “cut,” and “caught.”
Non-native speakers of English will need to learn how to slide the vowels around the mouth to make diphthongs, rather than making “pure” vowels, in which the tongue remains in one position for each vowel. For example, the vowel in “may” is not just one vowel, but is a diphthong. Compare it to the vowel in “mai” in French, which is a single “pure” vowel in that the tongue does not slide to form a diphthong, but remains in one position. Also, compare “eel” in English to “il” in French. In English, native speakers slide the vowel before the /l/, but French (and most other language) speakers keep the /i/ “pure” and do not slide it.
Non-native speakers of English also may not be familiar with the phonological rule of vowel reduction, which says that all vowels, when not stressed in a syllable, word, or phrase, are reduced to the neutral, mid-central vowel (called the “schwa”), as in “the” and the unstressed vowels in “America.”
The consonants are described by their place and manner of articulation. For example, /p/ and /b/ are both bilabial stops, that is made with the two lips and the air is completely stopped. /p/ is unvoiced and /b/ is voiced. /f/ and /v/ are labio-dental fricatives, that is made with the lips against the teeth and with friction of the air. /t/ and /d/ are alveolar stops, that is made with the tip of the tongue stopping the air against the alveolar ridge (just behind the front upper teeth). /k/ and /g/ are velar stops, that is made by the tongue touching the velum (soft palate) and the air is completely stopped. You will learn about the phonological rule of aspiration (placing a puff of air) after /p/, /t/, and /k/ (unvoiced stops) in initial position. Compare the aspirated [p’] of “pill” to the unaspirated [p] of “spill.” These sounds are called “allophones” – they are predictable by their phonetic environments, and are mutually exclusive (where one occurs, the other cannot). A phoneme is the minimal unit of distinctive sound. Phonemes are not predictable by their phonetic environments, and are separate in their meanings. For example, /p/ and /b/ are separate phonemes in English because interchanging them in a word will change the meaning, as in “pill” vs. “bill,” which are called minimal pairs.
You will also learn about “blending” and “liaison.” An example is the rule of palatalization – how “got you” becomes “gotcha” and “did you” becomes “didja.” You will also learn about flapping (or tapping) of /t/ and /d/ between vowels when they come after a stressed syllable in a word or connected words: “pretty,” “better,” “Daddy,” but never in “guitar.” You can flap the /t/ in “It is,” even though the stress comes after it, because it is weakened at the end of a word.
You will also need to learn the differences between levels of formality. Fast and casual speech will be different than when someone is making a formal speech to an audience. Certain sounds may be dropped, as in /h/ in “Is he?” In informal speech, there are many elisions, or blending, of one sound or word into the next, as mentioned above in palatalization and flapping of /t/ and /d/.
You will not only learn about the sound segments, as described above, but also what is known as “suprasegmentals,” or prosodic features. This refers to what makes the speech flow together, the rhythm, intonation, the pausing. Speech is similar to music in that it has a melody, a rhythm, phrasing, rate, and flow. English uses a lot of liaison, or connected flow, with one sound in a word connecting to the next word. If you are a native speaker of an Asian language, using liaison may be difficult to master since many of these languages “chop” the syllables and words. You will also learn the stress pattern of English. That is how you can change the stress of a word to change the meaning. For example, think of the difference in stress between “a white house” and “the White House.” Or, think of the difference between the stress in the numbers “fifty” and “fifteen.” You will need to learn when to use a rising intonation, as in a question, or falling intonation, as in a statement. Changing your accent requires a lot of listening and practice, but it can be done if you are motivated (and having a good ear helps, too).
II. Regional Accent Reduction
You may wish to “lose your Brooklyn accent,” or whatever your native accent may be. This really refers to learning the Standard accent of whatever language is spoken. In the United States, it is known as Standard American English. In the United Kingdom, it is known as Received Pronunciation (RP), the traditional upper class, educated dialect (which is no longer spoken by most English people). Keep in mind that a standard is merely a dialect that is given social prestige. Books are written in it, and newscasters usually speak it. But there is nothing inherently “good” or “right” about it. All dialects are equally logical in their own right because speakers of any dialect can adequately express themselves in their native dialects and be understood by speakers of that dialect.
However, you may feel that your native accent is interfering with your success in business or your profession because of stereotypes about that accent. You may wish to learn to speak Standard American English if you are in the United States. Learning the standard dialect of your own language is similar to learning the standard sound system of a second language for non-native speakers in that you must distinguish the differences between the sound segments and prosody of your original accent and the those of the standard. That may be tricky because you have become used to speaking in your native accent; it feels “right” to you. The differences between your accent and the standard are also much more subtle than the differences between a foreign accent and the standard. But, with practice and listening, changes can be made. Of course, having a good ear helps.
III. Accent Acquisition for Actors
You may need to learn a Standard American accent if you are an actor or announcer from another country, either native in English or non-native. Or, you may be an American actor who needs to learn another accent. At this time, I can teach: Standard American, Received Pronunciation British English, Cockney, Southern American (general), New York City (Jewish or Italian), French, Spanish, and Italian.