Whether they actually need to or not, second-language learners seem to be obsessed with accent reduction. At Newcastle Language Systems, we've even had students with extremely clear pronunciation who still believed that they needed to sound "less foreign", even though we told them during the assessment that they didn't need to unnecessarily spend money on dedicated lessons. We could understand them perfectly, and we assured them that as long as their English speaking co-workers and friends were making an effort to listen carefully, they could probably understand them as well! Nevertheless, every student has their reason for wanting to perfect their pronunciation, and so Newcastle Language Systems has developed its own color-coded method to accelerate the process.
First, we must mention that, unlike many other schools, Newcastle Language Systems doesn't talk about "reducing" a foreign accent. Instead we talk about accent addition, in that we're adding the sounds of English to your current set of language skills. As noted above, if you've been speaking English for a few years, your accent is probably good enough for most native English speakers to understand with just a little effort. For example, we know that when a native French speaker asks,'What ee zees?' he is really asking, 'What is this?', even though he cannot produce the English sound of 'th'. Similarly, we know when a Mandarin speaker says she's going to 'mass class', we know she's going to a 'math class' and probably not one on dedicated solely to the 'mass' of physics. Of course, the speakers thoughts would be a bit clearer if they were to add the English 'th' sound to their skill set, and that's where we can help.
Using a series of lessons that link sound to color, the Newcastle Pronunciation System for International English helps learners remember that two English sounds are not the same, even though the student may believe they are. In the example above, the French speaker really does believe that 'z' and 'th' are the same sound, in the same way English learners of French often believe the 'u' of 'tu and 'vous' are exactly the same, even though they are completely different sounds to a native French speaker! Below, you can read about the science of accents and how our method for accent addition can not only improve your pronunciation of English but your comprehension of it, as well. But first, let's talk about the lessons!
Ok, so what are color-coded lessons?
Color-coded lessons mean that each sound of the English language is assigned a color, which then give students visual cues to the sound the student needs to produce. The method has been in use for language instruction for many years, and although Newcastle Language Systems isn't the first school to use color-coded pronunciation lessons, we believe we have developed the most useful and detailed color-coded system in second language education.
For vowels, each lesson consists of two English sounds that may sound very similar to some students. This is because the student may not have one, or even both, of the sounds in their native language. The purpose of the colors is to remind students that their lips and tongue need to be in different positions to correctly pronounce each sound. If they do not change the position, two different words will be pronounced the same way. And that may lead to a misunderstanding!
Here is a typical vowel lesson. It instructs the students on the sound difference between the vowel sound in the word 'green', which is often called 'long i', and the sound that is in 'tin', which is often called 'short i'. While many languages, such as those in the Romance group (French, Italian, etc.), have 'long i', they might not have the 'short i', and so the student will pronounce the words 'ease' and 'is' EXACTLY the same. For a native English speaker, however, these words sound very different!
During our accent addition lessons lesson, the instructor will make sure that the student is making two different sounds, thus pronouncing two different words. The instructor also makes sure that the student can produce the sounds in all phonetic environments. For example, many student learn to pronounce short-i word like 'bit' correctly, but then they pronounce 'bill' incorrectly by using the long-i sound of 'green'. Why does this happen? Because the student is raising the tongue to pronounce the 'l' sound at the end of 'bill', and that causes the tongue to also produce the long-i sound that is heard in 'green'. So, instead of 'bit' and 'bill', the student produces 'bit' and 'beel'.
Newcastle Language Systems has produced nearly fifty of these useful exercises for its students, and we are in the process of producing many more. We are also creating videos to accompany the exercises, so that our students may practice without the instructor. So, If you're ready to take the next step toward improved pronunciation of American and International English, you can contact us here.
American English? British English? International English? What's the difference?
After a few years of teaching English pronunciation, we realized that the standard method of instruction is completely outdated in today's world. For years, British instructors have taught British English, Americans have taught American English, and the same goes for all the Irish, Scots, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders. The instructors taught the accent that the student needed to converse with people in their region.
Of course, this was all very fine in the past, but did you know there are currently two billion people learning English right now, and statistics tell us that most of them are not using it speak to native English speakers! They're using it to talk to other English LEARNERS.
When two people with different native languages use a third language to communicate, it is called a lingua franca, and for good or bad, English has become the lingua franca of the business world. Thus, we might now have a complicated situation in which a Spanish company has an office in Italy, where a native speaker of Arabic is using English to speak to a native speaker of Mandarin!
At Newcastle Language Systems, we asked ourselves, 'Do these speakers really need to correctly pronounce some words according to the American or British accent, or does there need to be a standard system of pronunciation that allows them to understand EACH OTHER?' Well, immediately, we knew the answer was clear: instead of the instructor teaching their regional pronunciation, the instructor has to adopt and teach an international form of English pronunciation. We have to design a pronunciation system that uses elements of the most common American and British accents so that students could be understood by both native British and American speakers and by each other. Newcastle Language Systems call this the "International English Accent".
However, while it is this course that we recommend to students who are working for companies whose corporate language is English, we also understand there are many students who are living in an English-speaking nation, preferring to further integrate with their adopted society by sounding more like the local speakers. For these students, we currently offer accent addition lessons in General American English. If you are seeking to add another variety of English, such as British or Australian, please contact us and we will find the perfect educator for you.
What are some of the pronunciation rules of the International English Accent?
In order to be clearly understood by native English speakers of all native-English speaking nations, there are some sounds that are definitely required. Two of them are the voiceless 'th' sound, as heard in 'think' and the voiced 'th' sound, as heard in 'this'. Unfortunately, this sounds is only found in about 20% of the world's languages, and so it is difficult for most learners to produce.
Another sound needed is called the lateral 'r', which is another rare sound in the world's languages. But while all native English speakers will produce the 'r' at the beginning of words such as 'real' and 'right', not every accent requires them to be said in other positions of a word. For example, while a speaker of General American and Canadian English will say 'heart' by pronouncing the 'r', British, Australian, Irish, and New Zealand speakers will pronounce it without the 'r'.
During our accent addition lessons for General American English, and we find that while can teach most of our students to pronounce 'r' at the beginning of the word, many still have a trouble with the sound when appears near the end of the word, in what is called a 'consonant cluster'. Many languages don't even allow consonant clusters in words, such those found at the end of 'heart', 'record', 'bands', and 'builds' (the final 'rt', 'rd', 'nds', and 'lds' are all consonant clusters), and so we wondered if we should continue to force our learners to pronounce the 'r' in 'heart' and other words like it when most of the native-English speaking accents from around the world didn't use it either. Yes, if the student is here in America, working here, living here, then we still teach General American, but if they are mostly interacting with other non-native English speakers, we believe the best thing is to simply teach them the British way to pronounce those words. It's easier for them to pronounce, and believe us, the Americans will understand. (And actually, the native New York and Boston accents have no 'r' in these words either!)
The non-pronunciation of 'r' in word-final consonant clusters is just one of the few special rules of our International English accent. To the probable dismay of non-North American native English speakers, we've also eliminated the rounded vowel sound heard in the British 'hot', opting for the General American version, while also eliminating the confusing sound change of North American speakers when they pronounce an 'a' before an 'm' or an 'n'. Students should note, however, that the pronunciation rules of our International English are not random, and neither are they designed to be 'fair' to all native-English accents. The rules were designed only after hearing the difficulties our students from all over the world had in producing and hearing certain sounds. For example, the British method of clearly producing 't' at the teeth was selected over the American method only after testing whether our students could understand us better when we said 'water' with the tongue at the back of the teeth (British) or after we said 'wadder', with the tongue hitting the roof the mouth (American). Here, the British sound was more clearly understood, and so it was selected for International English.
To conclude, International English is about simplicity while still being able to be understood by native English speakers all over the world. But more importantly, it's about being able to clearly communicate with non-native English speakers all over the world. The learners of English now outnumber the native speakers, and here at Newcastle Language Systems, we feel you should have an accent of your own. But of course, if you're living and working in America, we can still teach you the accent, as well, just so people know when you want a glass of 'wadder'.
So, are you ready to add International or General American pronunciation to your English language skills? Then contact us here. Else, you can keep reading about the science behind Newcastle Language Systems.
So, what causes 'foreign' accents, anyway
Did you know that even before a baby is born it can hear and identify the sounds of its mother’s native language? However, up until about six months of age, a baby can also still hear differences in the sounds of human languages that adults cannot. This is because it is about that time in a baby’s life that its brain begins to focus only on the sounds necessary for the language that it will eventually speak, while all other human language sounds are ignored. This process of discarding unneeded sounds then makes it difficult later in life to hear the sounds of a second language that we may want to learn. Our brain has been ‘programmed’ for one set of sounds, and the new language is using many sounds that aren’t in the set of the native tongue. For example, the ‘th’ sound of English is very rare in the languages of the world, appearing in only about 20% of them, so when a learner who doesn’t have that sound in their native language hears it, their brain processes it as the closest sound in their own language. Thus, for French, German, and Italian learners of English, the ‘th’ sound is heard as ‘z’ or ‘s’ depending on the English word, and they then they produce the sound using a ‘z’ or ‘s’ when they speak that word. Essentially, this is the cause of a ‘foreign’ accent: the speaker is using the sounds of their native language to speak the second language.
However, if the learner practices enough to produce sounds that are closer to the target language, in this case English, then native English speakers will be able to better understand them. Conversely, if the learner is producing a sound that is not close to the English sound, or if it is the wrong sound, then native speakers will sometimes have difficulty interpreting the speech, which can lead to misunderstandings that could sometimes even be embarrassing.
While many native English speakers can interpret foreign accents, there are many good reasons for adding the sounds of English to your list of language skills. If the learner is living in an English-speaking culture, greater confidence in speaking leads to more conversation with native English speakers, which then improves overall knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary. As noted in the next article on this page, a second reason is that better pronunciation leads to improved listening comprehension. In the end, no matter your reason for adding the sounds of English to your language skills, Newcastle Language Systems is here for you. If you are ready for your free assessment of you current pronunciation, you may contact us here.
Finally, does good pronunciation really improve comprehension?
A common complaint we hear from even advanced students is that they have trouble comprehending native English speakers who either speak too quickly or are speaking to each other. As language learners ourselves, we completely understand! We feel we know the grammar and a lot of the vocabulary of the second language, so why are we having so much trouble hearing it? Well, the answer is both complicated and hotly debated in the field of linguistics, but here at Newcastle Language Systems, we follow what is known as the Motor Theory of speech perception.
Essentially, the theory states that the brain perceives and interprets human speech in the native language because the tongue, lips, and vocal chords know how to form those sounds. That is, because the muscles can produce those sounds, they are instantly recognized when they are heard. Support for this theory comes from experiments in the McGurk Effect, in which native listeners have difficulty interpreting spoken words that do not match the speaker’s mouth movements. In applying motor theory to second language learning, Newcastle Language Systems believes if the learner cannot properly produce the sounds of a certain word, they might have trouble interpreting that word when they hear it.
The solution, then, is clear: by adding the sounds of English to a learner’s set of language skills, the learner should be able to identify and interpret words more quickly, which in turn increases total comprehension. So, if you’re still having trouble hearing the difference between ‘think’ and ‘thing’ or ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’, schedule a FREE assessment today to see how we can help with not only your pronunciation, but your comprehension, as well.