January 10, 2017
Editor's note: We revisit one of our popular Education stories from 2016 - an article that provides a good way to start the new year: setting reasonable goals for learning English.
In the Education Tips series, education experts in the United States give you ideas about how you can improve your English skills. This week, Eli Hinkel, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, and Marla Yoshida, a Teaching English as a Foreign Language Teacher at the University of California, Irvine, talk about accents and pronunciation.
For VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.
Learning a new language is a long, difficult process.
This process can become easier if you set goals. Goals help guide language learners and give them reasons to continue studying a language.
However, if you set unreasonable goals, then you will probably become discouraged.
Many English learners set difficult, even unreasonable goals. For example, here at VOA Learning English, we often read emails with comments like: "My goal is to sound like a native speaker..." or "My goal is to lose my accent."
The problem with the goal of sounding like a native speaker is that it is not a reasonable goal for many people.
Why it is difficult to sound like a native speaker
When English learners begin studying English after a certain age, they are not able to sound exactly like a native English speaker. That is the opinion of Eli Hinkel, a professor at Seattle Pacific University.
She says that people who have not reached puberty still have enough muscle and brain plasticity to allow their brain to control their mouth muscles. Puberty is the period of life when a child becomes an adult.
After your physical growth has stopped, the brain loses some of its ability to change the way it controls the muscles of the mouth. This is what results in an accent, according to Hinkel.
In other words, having an accent is a natural part of the aging process of the brain.
It's OK to have an accent
Just because you might not sound like a native speaker does not mean that you should give up trying to improve your pronunciation.
And just because you have an accent does not mean that your language skills are poor.
Hinkel suggested that English learners should not be too disheartened about their accents.
"So, there is really no connection between the quality of one's language and the accent."
She adds that there are even benefits to having an accent.
Eli Hinkel is a native Russian speaker. But she works as a professor in a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) program. She believes her accent helps her when she is teaching students.
"I teach MA TESL courses …So, my students think that I really, really know what I'm talking about…accent goes a great deal toward that."
Another teacher says sounding like a native speaker is not necessary.
Marla Yoshida is a Teaching English as a Foreign Language Teacher at the University of California, Irvine. She says that improving your pronunciation is definitely possible – if you choose a reasonable goal.
"You can reach a stage where your pronunciation is easy for people to understand, where it never causes a problem... you go into Starbucks and say your name, and they understand … you give your order and they understand. So, that's a reasonable goal: being understood easily. Where sounding like a native speaker is wonderful if you can do it… it's not necessary."
So, what can English learners do to improve their pronunciation?
Marla Yoshida says that, like when you decide to diet, you are more likely to have success if you set reasonable goals. She suggests working on specific areas of pronunciation that you can improve, instead of trying to sound like a native speaker.
"Work consciously, if you are an adult, to change the way you pronounce. It's kind of like a diet. If you set a more reasonable goal... then, the diet might succeed. In the same way, pronunciation … if you have a more reasonable goal, like… 'I have trouble with the r and l sounds, so first I'm going try those. And then, when I'm comfortable with those, then I'll move on to some other sound that causes problems.' It takes time, but it is possible."
Yoshida added that English learners should understand that improving their pronunciation can take a long time. She said that learners should not be tricked by people who claim to be able to help people get rid of their accents:
"It is good to realize that it [improving pronunciation] is not a fast process. Everyone has been speaking their native language for years and years and years. And it's hard to change. Habits of how you move your mouth are really hard to change. So, don't expect miracles. Sometimes, people see advertisements for software or courses that say 'get rid of your accent in only five lessons'—or something... It's not going to happen! There are no miracles."
So, what can you do?
Start by setting a reasonable goal. Choose one or two sounds that are difficult for you to pronounce. Then, work to improve those sounds. When you have improved, study other sounds. Progress might be slow for you, but don't give up!
Next week, we will give you examples of exercises that you can do to start improving your pronunciation.
I'm John Russell.
John Russell reported on this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
discouraged – adj. less determined, hopeful, or confident
accent – n. a way of pronouncing words that occurs among the people in a particular region or country
puberty – n. the period of life when a person's sexual organs mature and he or she becomes able to have children
plasticity – n. the quality of being able to be made into different shapes
pronunciation – n. the way in which a word or name is pronounced