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How to Reduce an Accent? First, Understand Just What an Accent Is

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we answer a listener in the Philippines named Arnel Camba.

ARNEL CAMBA: "I am an online English teacher and I just want to know what are the different techniques or different strategies on how to improve the accent and intonation? And one more thing is: as a teacher, is it OK if I'm going to correct the students' errors right away? If not, what do you think is the proper way to correct the students' errors?"

Arnel works in Manila and his native language is Tagalog. His students are in South Korea; he talks to them over the Internet but says they complain about his accent. "I'm trying my best to imitate how Americans speak English," he says, "but I think I'm hopeless."

Actually, there's good reason to be hopeful, according to our friend the English teacher, Lida Baker in Los Angeles.

LIDA BAKER: "I happen to have a very good friend who's a native speaker of Tagalog and my mother-in-law is in a retirement home where almost all of the assistants happen to be from the Philippines, and I don't have any difficultly understanding these women even when they make mistakes, because as native speakers we have a completely filled-in map of the structure and the sound system of the language. So when someone makes a nonstandard error, we just fill in the gap.

"But when you have someone who's learning English as a second language, they don't have that map in their head. So my hunch is that the difficulty here isn't just the way the teacher speaks English, but it's the interaction between his nonstandard dialect and the students' inability to fill in those gaps due to the fact that they are not yet fluent speakers of English."

RS: "Right."

AA: "So basically you have a situation where you have these Korean students learning from a Filipino -- learning English from a Filipino. And so they have their accent and he has his accent, and they're not happy with his accent, and he's trying to speak English the way Americans do. Do you have any sort of basic advice about someone in a situation like this, what they can do to maybe speak a little more like an American speaker, a native speaker?"

LIDA BAKER: "If this teacher were a student of mine, the first thing that I would do would be to diagnose his accent. And there are all kinds of tools available where the student records a script or a text and this text contains all the sounds and all the features of English. And one thing that is really critically important is to remember that an accent or a dialect isn't just made up of sounds, of phonemes.

"There are other features of the way we speak that are called supersegmentals, and that includes word stress and intonation -- you know, when the voice goes up and down -- and the way that we connect words in a connected stream. And, in fact, what research shows is that it is nonstandard pronunciation of stress and intonation and linking -- those connections between words -- that contribute much more to the lack of intelligibility in a person's accent than individual sounds.

"And so if I were going to diagnose his accent I wouldn't only be listening for errors or nonstandard pronunciations of sounds. I would be listening very, very carefully especially to stress and intonation and linking. I think one of the chief differences between the main Filipino language, which is Tagalog, and English, when I hear Tagalog speakers speaking English, is that they tend to place the stress on the wrong syllable of a word or they stress the wrong word in the sentence or in the question. And that can really lead to very large gaps in communication.

"So the first thing I would do would be to diagnose this person's accent, find out what the nonstandard features were. And then I would work out a training program where I would prioritize the person's accent features, working first and foremost on the things that are an impediment to communication."

AA: We'll hear more from English teacher Lida Baker on this subject, and on the question about correcting students, next week on WORDMASTER. In the meantime, if you're learning or teaching English, you can find lots of advice at our Web site, With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.