Give me 10 minutes and I’ll show you the 5 phases of acquiring the perfect American English accent (via a conversation about POTTY TRAINING!)
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You’re learning a lot about American English pronunciation. How Americans talk and how to sound American. And as you’ve learned, you’ve started to become aware of all of your English habits that you’d like to change. You start to become incredibly frustrated. It feels impossible to take what you’re learning about pronunciation and apply it to actual real conversations that you’re having. In this video, we’re going to talk about the process that takes you from knowing something to being able to do it regularly without even having to think about it.
As i’ve been raising my son who’s two, I have noticed lots of little things that made me think about teaching my adult students and accent training. One of the things that’s so different about pronunciation training is that it’s different for most of the learning we do as adults. When you were learning English, you were likely learning it as knowledge for the mind, which is what almost all of the learning we do as older children and adults is, at least here in the US.
We’re learning things to know, like memorizing vocabulary or English verb conjugations. Things that you can write and talk about. Training in a sport or on a musical instrument or singing is a lot more like working on your accent than studying English is. Some people think I’m an English teacher. I correct them.
I’m not. That’s not how I think about myself at all. I’m primarily an accent trainer. I try to figure out how to help students understand and change their habits to be more comfortable and confident speaking English. A while ago, I was reading a book about raising kids that really reminded me of the different phases of learning when working on your accent. I talked through this same sequence all the time with my adult students. And you know what the book was about? It was about potty training. That’s right.
This is where Stoney was learning something totally new about his body and I had to try to understand his experience, to help guide him through it. The book said this: the first phase is diapers. From newborn until it starts to become something that he notices or we start talking about. Think of a newborn. Total unawareness about something like peeing. This is phase one. As he moves out of diapers he has to start noticing something about his body that he hadn’t
Paid attention to before. This is phase two. This isn’t just like my adult students working on their accent and being easily understood when speaking.
You’re starting to notice something about your body, the way that you sound, that you hadn’t necessarily paid attention to before or even known how to pay attention to.
The book talked about how first, Stoney will notice after he’s peed. He’ll be able to say: I peed. Of course that’s disappointing if your goal is not to have your kid pee his pants. But it’s a necessary step in this process. This is not a habit yet. He’s still understanding what’s happening. This is phase two. He no longer has total unawareness, he now has awareness when something has happened. Phase three is being able to tell me when he’s peeing as it’s actually happening. So phase two is past.
You notice it after it happens. Phase three is present. You notice it as you do it. Phase four, you may have been able to guess, is future. You think about it just before it happens. This is the phase he’s in now, thankfully, where he can say: I’m going to pee, or I need to pee. That’s a lot easier to deal with than: I peed or I’m peeing. And there’s a fifth phase.
That’s the phase where he doesn’t tell us anymore. It’s just part of normal life and he goes to the bathroom when he needs to. Let’s talk about these phases with changing a pronunciation habit.
Phase 1, total unawareness. You’ve never known about the sounds of American English or what you were doing wrong.
You’ve learned English but you’ve never specifically studied pronunciation. So when you first start studying, you learn all kinds of new things, like exactly how the AH vowel sounds that it’s not in your language and how it’s made.
That’s something you learn with the mind and that’s very satisfying. You could describe it and teach it to someone else. As I said, this is the kind of learning most of us do as adults. It’s moving from phase 1 to phase 2, total unawareness to understanding. But there are still three more transitions to make before making something a habit and this is where many of my students get frustrated. They’re stuck in Phase two, and that is you know you’re doing it wrong because you learned about it, you notice it, but you notice you’re still constantly doing it wrong in conversation.
You can’t think of what to say and pronunciation at the same time. You’re stuck in Phase two. The past phase. You notice it after you’ve already made a mistake. That can be very frustrating.
This is where some people want to give up. It’s their habit and they don’t see how they can ever change it. How can they ever think of two things at once? But you can get all the way to phase five. I always try to tell my students this is actually progress. You’ve gone from not knowing something at all to knowing it.
Don’t give up so early in the journey. For example, let’s say you’re working on getting the UH as in butter vowel to sound really natural and American. This one can be tough because it depends a lot on placement too. You’ve learned how it’s made and how it’s different from other sounds, you’ve listened to a lot of minimal pairs and now you can hear it as its own sound. You left phase one for phase two.
You have awareness. And you can practice it over and over. But when you’re in conversation, thinking about what to say, you find you still say it wrong. You notice it after it comes out of your mouth, and this feels really disappointing to you. This is where some students want to quit.
You’ve started training the sound, doing the repetitions to retrain your muscles. How do you bridge your practice time to real speaking in real conversation? It’s actually simple. Just more training. By noticing what you’re doing wrong, you can focus on your practice more. If there are any words that consistently don’t feel right, write them down. Make sure that’s one of the words that you’re training ten, twenty, or more times a day. You just need more repetitions of doing it right to change the habit. A great tool can be to record yourself.
Many people now have phones that can record audio. Record a conversation you have at some point during the day. Listen to it later. Now that you’ve increased your knowledge, you’ll be able to be your own teacher. You’ll be able to notice things that aren’t right, and you can write them down, and work with them over and over. This is great if there are certain words you’re using a lot for work or your daily life.
Take the words or phrases that intimidate you the most and practice them 20 or more times, several times throughout the day. This repetition is necessary but it will only take a few minutes. Practice it slowly and at regular pace. Imitate a native speaker by going to Forvo.com or Youglish.com to hear many samples.
This is how you bridge the gap between practicing and real conversation. It’s simply more focused practice on the actual words that you’ll use in your daily life. And as you train more and more, you’ll go through the same phases that Stoney went through for potty training. You’ll go from noticing your mistake after you’ve made it, phase 2, to phase 3 where as you start to stay the word, your brain gets triggered and you remember how you want to try to say it. Don’t be afraid to repeat your word with a better pronunciation.
As you do more training, you’ll be able to think about the right pronunciation just as your brain has come up with the word and you want to say it. And with more training and more time, you’ll no longer even think about it. Your confidence on a particular word or sound will be that high. You won’t need to think about it, you won’t notice it, it’s no longer a problem for you. So it can be very frustrating, because the first thing that happens after you learn something is realizing how often you do it wrong, and how hard it is to change a habit. That’s true. And the more you learn about pronunciation the more habits you’ll want to change but you can change them.
And don’t let the work that is necessary turn you off. You can do it. I’ve seen hundreds of students change their habit through regular training, repetition. A little hard work and the payoff is so big. If you get frustrated at the beginning, you’ll never move on to the next phase. But if you take it as a tool for learning, and you keep training, you will get there. You’ll get to where you want to be. What are some of your best tips for how you’ve worked on your accent and made a real change? Or for how you’ve stayed motivated? Maybe there’s a particular word that you couldn’t say correctly that you now say without effort.
Share the tips or tricks that you use in practicing and improving in the comments below. What is one major victory you’ve had while studying English? Share these things in the comments below so everyone can learn from you and feel motivated by you and your successes. And don’t forget, keep working. You can’t change a habit overnight, it does take some time and dedication, but it’s worth it, and you can do it. I believe in you.
That’s it and thanks so much for using Rachel’s English.