Posted on | July 13, 2007 | 1 Comment
In a recent comment from my previous post on “Accent Reduction Course”, Max asks if anyone knows a good course to help his friend on his English accent. His friend comes from Mainland China. Both Max and his friend are currently living in Hong Kong.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any reference in Hong Kong, but I am sure courses like this are very common around the world. The challenge is to identify which ones are good.
Perhaps what I can do instead is to share some important concepts I have learned from my course, which have since become extremely beneficial to my English skills. Remember, here we are not just talking about learning a language, but changing your accent.
Unlike many Romantic languages, you simply cannot figure out for sure how an English word is pronounced by merely looking at its spelling. This fact is probably well-known to a lot of English learners, but many ignore its magnitude.
You basically have to get rid of the mindset of figuring out English pronunciations by spellings. You can guess but you can never be sure. I would even boldly go to the extreme to visualize that the correlation is as weak as figuring out how a Chinese character is pronounced. There are patterns for guessing the pronunciation by looking at the radicals, but they are not rules.
This means whenever you encounter a new English word, you must find out how it sounds. You can listen to how native speakers pronounce it, or simply look it up from a dictionary (or better still, an on-line dictionary with sounds). But never assume its pronunciation. I have personally made this mistake many times in the past. In one occasion, I was making a speech but getting the pronunciation of a simple word wrong. How embarrassed!
An English ‘j’ is different from a Spanish ‘j’, a French ‘j’, or even a Chinese Pinyin ‘j’. Getting all these sounds sorted out right from the beginning is crucial. It is very easy for typical English learners to omit this, especially those who have been learning the language for many years.
For example, it was my first time to come across the concepts of reduced vowels and ‘schwa’ in the course. Although I have been using them subconsciously, I was never aware of their existence. I have also learned a few IPA notations in the course.
You don’t have to get the sounds perfect right from the beginning. But at least you should have a foreknowledge of how they should sound, and strike to imitate them until you have reached some kind of perfection.
English is a non-tonal language, but it does not mean the English words are toneless and you can pick any tone you like. They still have tones, but the tones vary depending on the contexts. It is typically the learners coming from tonal-language backgrounds who find difficulty in grasping this concept. They usually assign fixed tones to the words, and they do this subconsciously.
However, it is also not unusual for learners coming from non-tonal language backgrounds to have difficulty too. For example, English intonation is different from those of other European languages. I remember seeing my Polish and Ukrainian classmates struggling with the English intonation. There is a tendency for them to simply adopt their own sets of intonations and ignore that fact that English has different intonation. In fact, if you pay closer attention, even British English and America English have slightly different intonations.
No language course can help you if you don’t help yourself. In fact, it was pointed out to me right at the beginning of the course, that each student should find himself an individual native English-speaking buddy, and spent at least a certain amount of time per day to study the language.
One clear message I got from the course is that the course itself is just the beginning. It taught me the basic concepts, but after that I would be on my own. What needs to follow is a lot of hard work and effort.
Without effort, you can go nowhere. “Effortless success” is an oxymoron.