Have you ever said this?
“My accent is too strong.”
“I’m embarrassed when I speak because I sound … (Spanish / Italian, etc.)”
If you’re worried about your accent, there are a few things you can do to reduce it and improve your English pronunciation.
Choose, listen and analyse
Choose the accent you want to work towards. English has lots of varieties, so decide which one is best for you. British English? American English? Australian English?
Then find a podcast, radio program, audiobook or YouTube video of people speaking in that accent.
How do they pronounce vowels or consonants? What can you change to sound more like them? Try to copy what they say, paying attention to these particular sounds.
But this isn’t all you should do!
It’s not all about individual sounds
Very often, people can tell your first language by how you pronounce certain vowels or consonants – or if you have difficulty with them.
But there are other more important things to do to reduce your accent and to make your English sound more like a native speaker’s. These are:
We don’t emphasise (stress) every sound or word in English. Within a word of more than one syllable, only one syllable (and sometimes two) are stressed. The other syllables are unstressed. So we say underSTAND and not UNderstand or unDERstand. (Read this out aloud and you’ll know what I’m talking about!)
Within a sentence, usually only meaning words are stressed – the grammatical words are unstressed. In fact you can hardly hear them, because they normally contain the “uh” (schwa) sound. In the sentence below I show you what I mean:
there’s uh MAN in thuh ROAD
THERE’S A MAN IN THE ROAD
(This will make you sound like a robot!)
Because “man” and “road” are stressed, the other unstressed words have to fit before and between without taking up any time. So if you tap your hand on the table on “man” and “road” (try tapping every second), the smaller words and sounds have to fit into those beats.
2. Linking between words
We link the end of one word and the beginning of the next word. We don’t end on each word. So for example, we don’t say
there’s. uh. MAN. in. thuh. ROAD
there’z-uh MAN-in thuh-ROAD
There are lots of different ways we link sounds. Sometimes the sound will change (“did you” = dijoo); sometimes we’ll lose the sound (“bad dog” = badog) and sometimes we’ll add a different sound (“he is” = he-yiz).
This is when we make our voice rise and fall in a sentence. It’s important because we use it to show our attitude towards something.
For example, if you say “Thank you” and I reply with “You’re welcome” I can sound more happy if my voice rises on “wel”. If I just say “You’re welcome” without going up or down, I sound less happy.
Intonation is also important to show our attitude in question tags. When our voice falls at the end, we show that we’re sure about something. When our voice rises, it shows that we aren’t sure.
Question tag intonation can be very difficult to master, but it’s something you can learn by listening and copying.
10 Quick Tips For Accent Reduction
Here are some ideas to help you improve your pronunciation.
- Read out loud.
- Record yourself speaking (listen, analyse then record again).
- Learn where to stress.
- Pay attention to the attitude you show through your intonation. Practise saying the same thing in a different way to change your attitude.
- Don’t talk too fast.
- Be methodical. Set a pronunciation goal (for example, to master b versus v); meet it, then go on to the next.
- Check the pronunciation of new words in a dictionary (paper or online).
- Ask people for feedback. Native speakers are much more likely to correct your pronunciation than your grammar.
- Be aware of how words change their sounds when they’re next to other sounds.
- Keep your mouth relaxed. You might need to use different muscles in your face than you do with your first language. Some face stretching exercises can be useful before you start.