Accessibility links

Breaking News

Key to a Better Accent in English? Students Say It's in the Music

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: more advice from English teacher Lida Baker.

Lida was with us last week to answer a question from an online English teacher in Manila. It had to do with accent reduction. But it got us to wonder what students who have no understanding of the English sound system can do on their own to improve their pronunciation.

LIDA BAKER: "There are a couple of things you can do, and how successful you are depends to some extent on how good your ear is. But one thing that is really, really helpful is singing. It's very interesting, I noticed in recent years that the younger students in my classes who've grown up listening to American pop music and rap music and watching a lot of MTV, they come into class -- now, they still have the same problems with grammar and vocabulary that students have always had. But these students are coming in with a really good accent in English. And they tell me that it's as a result of the fact that they've grown up listening to American music. So, yeah, spend time listening to American music."

RS: "Or watching TV or listening to a radio broadcast."

LIDA BAKER: "I mean, I think watching and listening are helpful, but because they're not active, you're not moving your mouth. You know, it's passive."

RS: "Well, what if you would, for example, record a passage and then listen to it, understand where the intonation is and where the accents are and how the words are produced and then -- "

LIDA BAKER: "Well, sure."

RS: "Try to reproduce it yourself, sounding, mimicking, repeating."

LIDA BAKER: "Absolutely, you can do that. Take any segment of English and record it and then use your stop and start button on your recording device to listen and repeat. But there, just a caveat: sometimes it's very hard to know what you're listening to. If you don't know that there is such a thing as stress and intonation and linking, you might not necessarily hear those features. So I do strongly recommend that people get a pronunciation book.

"Get a book written for students of English as a second language which explains, in language that you understand, how the sound system of English operates. And just one piece of advice when selecting a book -- actually, two pieces of advice. Make sure it comes with tapes or CDs. And make sure it doesn't deal only with sounds; make sure that it also targets stress, intonation, linking, clustering and the features of language aside from sounds.

"Sometimes pronunciation books come in series, so you'll have level one, level two, level three, and the level one book very often deals only with phonemes. And I think that's a mistake. Books may do that just because, with beginning students, it IS easier to fix problems with phonemes than it is to deal with stress and intonation and all that.

"But it really is a mistake to think that my accent is caused by the fact that I'm not able to pronounce the 'th' sound or, if I'm learning French, I can't pronounce the French 'r' and that's why I have an accent. There's so much more to it than that."

AA: "Our listener in Manila also has another question. He wants to know if it's OK to correct students right after they commit an error. What do you think about that?"

LIDA BAKER: "If it's an error with a grammatical feature or a vocabulary item that the class has already studied, so the student knows the rule, go ahead and correct it on the spot, because at that point what you're trying to do is to retrain the student to use the right word or to use the right grammar, and if they already know the rules, then that can be very helpful.

"But if it's an error that the student has never made before, it's going to take some time to explain the mistake, and if the student is in the middle of communicating something that's really important to her, then you probably don't want to interrupt them and make that correction on the spot. You probably want to let them finish saying what they're trying to communicate, and then afterwards make that correction. That would be how I would deal with that."

AA: English teacher and author Lida Baker in Los Angeles. If you missed our segment with her last week, you can find it at And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.