Is your accent in English holding you back professionally? [Show summary]
Esther Bruhl is a speech pathologist and founder of Speak More Clearly, an accent reduction training program for non-native English speakers. In this episode she explains how accents are formed and how new ones can be learned.
Increase your marketability or productivity, by reducing your accent when speaking English [Show notes]
Welcome to the 433rd episode of Admissions Straight Talk.
Before we dive into today’s interview, I want to mention a free resource at Accepted that can benefit you if you’re applying to graduate school. The challenge at the heart of admissions is showing that you both fit in at your target schools and stand out in the applicant pool. Accepted’s free download, Fitting In & Standing Out: The Paradox At The Heart Of Admissions will show you how to do both. Master this paradox, and you’re well on your way to acceptance. You can download your free guide at accepted.com/fiso, which stands for fitting in, standing out.
It gives me great pleasure to have on Admissions Straight Talk for the first time Esther Bruhl, a speech pathologist who specializes in accent reduction for non-native English speakers. Esther is also the founder of Speak More Clearly, both the site and the YouTube channel, and I think she’s the first guest we have had from down under, also known as Australia.
How did you get into the accent reduction field? [1:58]
I’m a speech and language pathologist. I work with children who have speech and language problems, but I also work with adults who feel they can’t be clear. Another speech pathologist and I started doing groups for people face to face in our clinic a long time ago, because in Australia, like in America, there are many people who have second languages. They’ve come from other places. In fact, in Australia, we have over 400 other languages that other people speak.
So we started this for people who were professionals, working either on the phone or other sorts of professions – lawyers, whatever. And they were feeling not confident and not good about the fact that they couldn’t be understood. People had to keep asking them to repeat themselves, et cetera, which is very frustrating actually. And so we started those at a very small level and then more and more people were coming along. She pulled out, she went on to do something else, and I just continued on. The more people we had, then we realized we had to make some courses. We originally just had audio courses, but now we have video and audio, the whole shebang, online. And that’s how I started, and I got more and more interested in it as I went along.
I assume at this point you’re mostly working with adults, no longer with children, right? [3:57]
Oh no, I still do have a children case load.
What causes accents? [4:09]
Oh, I think this is a great question. When we’re very, very young, and we start to learn language, we actually hear all the sounds that there are to make. When we babble, we babble all the sounds. All different sounds, even the ‘cha’ and ‘schm’, and any other sounds that are not in our native languages. And slowly over time, as we’re learning our native language or languages, we diminish our auditory acuity for all those other sounds and only focus on the sounds that are in our native language or languages. At the same time, what we’re doing is learning to move our mouth in a certain way. We organize our articulators in a certain way to only use those sounds as well, because before when we’re babbling, we’re saying all sorts of odd sounds that are not in our language.
Slowly that takes over, and we no longer use all those other sounds and therefore we have an American accent in English, or an Australian accent in English, or whatever language we’re speaking. That is partly to do with our neurological centers which are our language listening areas. So the language listening areas are very open at that point in time when we’re one-two years old. As we get older those centers are no longer necessarily needed as much and we’re developing other neurological connections and pathways. The focus goes over to walking or reading or whatever it is. For most people, those centers are still there, because we have to use our language, but they’re not continuing to develop per se. So the language listening areas, they don’t close, but they’re not making new connections either, so we therefore have our original accents.
When we go to learn a new language with a new accent, we have to really work those centers. Some people’s language listening abilities in those centers are poor in the first place. But also, in the new languages, let’s say I’m going to learn a new language, there will be sounds and I will have to move my mouth differently to what my automatic movement is and there will be sounds that I’m not used to that I have to learn. If I don’t do that, then I grab a sound from my original language that is close to that and that’s how I get an accent in the new language.
Now some people from the same countries seem to have understandable accents and some have accents that are very difficult to understand even if they’re fairly fluent in the language. Why is that? Does that still have to do with that neurological training? [8:35]
Yes, that has to do with the neurological adaptability and the language listening ability. There are some people who are amazing mimics. They can mimic straight away. And then there are other people who, yes, learned their original language, and they’re pretty okay in it and they can learn English and be fluent in it, but their ability to attune to the different sounds and frequencies is poorer than the next person. Even still, I’ve had people for instance who have said to me, “Oh look, I only learned the R in my original language when I was in middle school.” So they would have really big difficulty learning a different R for instance. I had a gentleman who was from China and he said, “Oh, even in my original dialect, I couldn’t pronounce the difference between L and N. At the moment I’m working with somebody from Venezuela who said that even in Spanish people find me difficult to understand.”
So is that a speech impediment, or is that an accent? [10:17]
Well, he didn’t actually have an impediment. He was, what’s called a clutterer. So for him, everything will get gobbled up, because his rhythm, his cerebellum, other areas that are responsible for organization, rhythm and frequency, he wasn’t able to control very well and so everything would get gobbled up.
What are some key tips for accent reduction no matter where you’re coming from? [10:52]
I’ll start by saying that often, and you would know this because of your getting people accepted into different courses, et cetera, often people learn English but forget that the pronunciation is important as well. So they get out of college and then they go for a job interview or something. And they’ve learned English, they’ve worked really hard on it. They’re fluent, it’s fantastic. But they haven’t realized that it’s important to be clear as well. So they go in for the interview and I’ve had lots of professionals come to me or students out of college saying, “Oh look, I went for this interview and they said, ‘Wow, your skills are fantastic. You really know the area, but your communication skills are not exactly what we need. Go and get clearer and then come back.'”
So my first thing I would like to say about this is, while you’re learning your English, pay attention to your pronunciation as well, at the same time. Don’t just ignore it. That’s one of the tips. But the next tip is be patient with yourself. You’re learning to move your mouth differently, you’re having to make that automatic. It’s like tennis. If you want to change a tennis grip you have to actually get a new motor planning, a new action that your hand has to remember. Same with your mouth. So be patient with yourself. People go, “Oh, I want a new accent in two weeks.” No, I don’t think so. And I know, some people are in a hurry because they have that interview, which is fair enough.
The next thing is to know that you’re learning to change the way that you move your mouth. So some people will repeat after the trainer in our course, and that’s why we have video training so they see exactly how and we also have a description of exactly how to put your tongue, your lips, your jaw, your everything. And some people will mimic the trainer or whatever they’re using and do exactly the same thing with their mouth again.
The next thing is listen and repeat. I had a guy, he was actually in England and he was listening to BBC Radio. He was from India and he said, “I’ve been listening for years but I still haven’t changed my accent.” I said to him, “Are you just listening or are you repeating and mimicking exactly like you mimic someone to make fun of them?” Which is not nice, but that’s what you have to do. And he went, “No, no, I’m only listening.” Well, you have to listen and repeat and you can record yourself. Go back and listen. See if you’re closer to the production of whoever you’re practicing with.
Another point is, while you’re practicing, listen for the rhythm, the intonation, and the stress. I’ll talk about those a bit later as well. I’d just like to mention that on our website, speakmoreclearly.com, there is a tab called English pronunciation tips, and there’s a whole lot of training lessons there that people can access if they want to on different particular pronunciation.
Is it helpful to listen to a news broadcast? [14:54]
Yes. Definitely. And if you’re doing it on a replay, you can stop, mimic, then do it again and listen. Podcasts are great for that so you can stop and mimic and repeat, but you have to repeat. To go back to the tennis thing, if you don’t do the practice, your hand and your muscle memory will never happen. It’s the muscle memory in the mouth and then in your neurological pathways.
You mentioned somebody coming from India, and we’ve certainly had clients who come from India. Their English may actually be quite fluent, and they could have been speaking English from early childhood, maybe even educated English. But they have a very thick accent that is hard, at least for Americans, to understand. Do you have tips geared to different nationalities? [15:45]
Yes, definitely. So for Indians, one of the main things which kills two birds with one stone is to learn to make their vowels long enough. The rhythm for Indian languages is much faster than English. It’s hard for them if I say, “Slow down,” they don’t know what that means. So if you stretch your vowels and make them long enough, then you’re taking care of the listener, A, and B, you’re slowing down. So a lot of background languages are syllable-timed, and English is stress-timed. So syllable-timed languages are like machine guns, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Like Chinese and Japanese, they’re all syllable timed. They take a break between every single syllable, basically. A very short one. Most of the Asian languages are syllable timed.
The European languages are a bit of a mix sometimes. They don’t link as much. But Indian language is definitely, da-da-da-da-da-da. And the rhythm is much faster. So if I say, “Can I go?” I’m shortening my vowels because they’re not as short as that in English. The ‘ah’, is much longer. ‘Can I’, is made of two sounds. ‘I go’, made of the American ‘ah’ and ‘oh’. For Indians, that is one of the keys, making the vowels properly.
Also, in all of the Indian languages, they don’t release or aspirate or put air into certain letters. P for Polly, T for Tom or K for kitten. So if I say ‘the top’, it’s not a ‘th’ sound. Those particular unvoiced consonants need it. Otherwise, it’s a dead giveaway and you’re not as clear in English. Hold the ‘th’ long enough. It’s not ‘tink’, it’s ‘think’. You have to let a nanosecond longer air out before you move your tongue away from the sticking out tongue position. Intonation is hard because they go up and down in a different way and basically they’re flat with up and down. And we just aren’t flat underneath. We go up and down
Can you share some tips for those with Chinese accents? [20:36]
Chinese is also syllable timed. In a longer word, they’ll make a break in the middle of it. So they’ll say ‘coll-eagues’ like there’s a break in the middle because you have to do each syllable. So again, that’s syllable timed and what they need to do is learn to link. The Indians know how to link a bit better. They still need to learn it a bit. But for instance, if I say, “Can I go out and see it?” In ‘Can I’ you’re linking the N to I. In ‘go out’ you’re putting a W in the middle to join the two vowels. Whenever a word ends in a consonant and the next one begins with a vowel, you join the last consonant onto the beginning of the next word. But they say each word staccato. So every single syllable has to have a little pause after it, because that’s how they speak.
The other thing they tend to do and this is a really good tip for them, because this really makes them not so clear is, the Chinese speakers often leave the final consonant off a word, because a lot of their words end in vowels. A lot of our words end in consonants. So for example for the word ‘outside’ they’ll say ‘ousi’. So the T and the D, got left. Or if I say “nine things.” They’ll say “ni things.” So the N gets left off. They need to actually make the extra movement. Tell their mouth to make the extra movement for that extra sound before they move on. Also a lot of them make ‘ng’ for N at the end of a word. So they’ll say ‘ong’ instead of ‘on’.
Would you have any difficulty working with someone who wants to have an American accent or aims to go to school in the U.S. or work in the U.S.? [23:05]
I can work with somebody who [wants] an American accent. I can put on my American accent, but we have our course, obviously. So students work with the course as well as working with us. But we also have American, British, and Australian accent courses. We have a trainer in America. All our trainers are currently speech and language therapists who specialize and have had many years, expertise in whichever country they’re in so we have a couple of Americans. We have a British person. We have another Australian person. A couple of them also do voice work if people want to have a richer voice and projection and all of that.
Is there any accent that’s particularly difficult to lose? [24:20]
It depends on the person. There is that thing of if you come after a certain age it’s harder. But you can still do it. People have done it. It is harder, but you just have to work a bit longer at it. At the moment, there’s a bit going on about accepting people and who they are and what they are and that’s a whole other thing at the moment.
But yeah, there are original languages that don’t have many of our sounds. For instance, we have six or seven more sounds that Korean has so for them it’s almost like they’re breaking their mouth. They can do it, but it takes them a little longer. There are African languages as well. I worked with a lady recently and in her African language, a word that ends in a D doesn’t just have a D but has an N together as a partnership. So taking the N out has been incredibly difficult, because she automatically puts the N in when a word ends in a D. So if you say the word “head” for instance, she’ll say “heand”. Or “good”, she’ll say “goond”.
What advice do you have for the spoken portion of English language tests like the IELTS, TOEFL, and PTE? It’s happened less in recent years, but there was a time when I would see really high TOEFL scores and the English fluency or the understandability of the individual was really low. [26:48]
That goes back to that original point I made where people only focus on the English and not on how to say the English as well. One of the biggest tips that I have for this is to open your mouth more. I know that sounds funny, but I found with working with hundreds of people and many many different language backgrounds, in English we tend to open our mouths more. We move our lips forward more. That’s a big tip for people, to learn to open.
Then stand in front of a mirror, whatever they’re practicing, the topics for the IELT, or PET, you know how they have different topics, and they are always practicing it anyway, so go and stand in front of a mirror and say three or four lines and move your mouth more. Over do it at first and then when you’re in the test you won’t be moving it as much. You’ll be nervous as well. You’ll be moving it enough. And people say to me, “Oh, it really feels weird.” Yep, but now you’re clear. So if they only did that, that would be something really good. Of course, they don’t have to in their own language.
For even a lot of the European languages, we have to work on moving lips forward, smiling, and opening the mouth to actually be clearer. It also makes sense for resonance. If you’re speaking to somebody, you’re opening more for the resonance to come up.
That’s why I think especially for the IELTS people feel nervous. I understand that. Learn to breathe abdominally. Put your hand on your belly button and you breathe into that and push it out. So you take three deep breaths before you go in to do your speaking test and it ties in with my next point, which is phrasing and pausing.
In English we phrase. We chunk things. So if I say, “I went to the store, and I met my friend, and I had a coffee.” So where the commas are is where I pause, because they’re chunks of meaning that I’m giving you. ‘I went to the store’ is telling you where I went. ‘I met my friend’ is telling you what I did in that part. ‘I had a coffee’ is telling you what I did after I met my friend.
If there aren’t any commas, you’re still chunking and pausing. Learn to use pauses, I would say to them. Learn to use pauses because we do that in English, so that the listener has time to integrate the bits that are inside, the comprehension bits that you want them to understand. Especially if they’re talking about something technical, because then it’s comprehension dense. There’s a lot more to understand in each piece of the sentence, or giving a speech or something like that. You can breathe so take a quick breath. When the professionals and the actors are speaking, they take a pause and take a quick breath into the abdomen through their mouth and then they keep going. That calms the nervous system down and makes you feel more confident.
To go with that, inside of the phrasing is stressing main meaning words. English listeners listen for the stressed and de-stressed words. So it’s like I just came off the boat from some other country and I’m trying to tell you something. I use the nouns, the verbs, the adverbs, and the adjectives. I stress them. So “went,” “store,” “met friend,” “had coffee.” You would understand what I meant. The vowel has to be stretched, made slightly longer and higher pitch. That’s how you emphasize a word. Stressing or emphasizing the words that carry the meaning, if you see what I mean, is another thing that’s really important for IELT. It’s the pausing and the stressing that makes it more intelligible if that makes sense.
Another is what I call a mental action for being clear. Saying the speaking part of the IELTS, you obviously have to have fluent English and the idioms and all of that they want you to know, but you also have to be clear. The mental action for being clear to me is stepping into the accent. I’m wearing it. I have to hear myself differently. I have to be willing psychologically to change my mental action and step into that other, and to be willing to use it. People use it when they’re working with us or when they’re practicing the course or when they’re practicing with their trainer and then they don’t use it when they go out. I know it’s hard, but piece by piece you have to step in and actually use it. The more you try the better you get at it.
The other thing which you guys probably teach is organizing. Think about what you’re going to say beforehand. Organize. Practice all of those. Organize the intro, the middle, the end, all the vocabulary, et cetera. And say it over and over, because as soon as you’ve organized it, then you’re more free to actually think about how you’re saying it as well, to a certain degree.
How could your company, Speak More Clearly help applicants who want to reduce their accents before an interview, or starting a class, or interacting with the schools that they are dying to get into? [36:34]
Well, first of all we have our accent modification courses. Some people want to have a total American accent. Some people want to be clear, but retain some of their accent. It’s all there. They can do any of those permutations. We’ve even got actors who use our course to get roles.
If you have your interview, let’s say in two months’ time, you’re not going to be able to change your accent in two months using the course. It takes a few months longer to do that. So we also have one-on-one coaching. As I said before, we’ve got trainers in different countries with the different accents as well. The one-on-one coaching, I’ve had people come in and say, “I’ve got this interview in two months time.” For that, we work on what the vocabulary is, what they have to say, what type of specific stuff is there that they know they’re going to be asked. We work on that and we make them clearer and clearer and more flowing. They get the immediate feedback as well and it’s specific to whatever it is that they have to say in those interviews or going into the college interview.
Is there anything you would have liked me to have asked you? [40:01]
I think we’ve covered most of it. One of our clients recently was saying to us, she worded it really well. She said, “You know we’re so fluent and at ease and we can express ourselves so well in our original language, and then we come to another language and it’s almost like a feeling of disability.” Like you cannot show who you are, you cannot express yourself with that ease. You want to speak at a higher level, whether philosophical or a deeper theoretical or whatever it is and you just can’t do it. And even if you have the words, it’s unclear and you have to repeat it. She was really pleased that she could get that sort of help. But it is very frustrating for a lot of people.
We also have people who are being understood, but they’re sick of being asked where they’re from, which is an interesting different twist on this. But most of the people we get are professionals who feel that it’s holding them back in their career, if they’ve already got into a company. Or as I said before, they’re going for these interviews and either fresh out of college or they’ve had a job and they want another job and they’re being told that their communication skills aren’t good enough. In Australia, maybe this is in America as well, there is an emphasis on team and socializing with the team, and being part of the team. So that whole water cooler thing of standing and having a conversation with your mates or going out for drinks is really important. Here in Australia, it’s important to be seen as socially part of the team and people really feel not confident sometimes to just go out socially and express what they want to express. Again, because there’s a lot of noise in a social situation and if you’re not clear, you’re really going to have to repeat yourself five times.
Where can listeners find you online? [43:20]
So speakmoreclearly.com is our website and our YouTube channel and there are lots and lots of videos with specific pronunciation training on there as well, that you can access. We offer Australian, British and American accent training and also a voice course for anybody who wants to have a richer speaking voice or has to present a lot.
- Speak More Clearly’s website
- Speak More Clearly’s YouTube channel
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