Many years ago, I taught a course for adults called “Everyone Can Sing: For people who were told they couldn’t sing, shouldn’t sing and wouldn’t sing.” By the end of that course, every single person got up to sing in front of the class –– every one. While it’s true that there’s a tiny 4% of human beings who have a genuine condition called “amusia,” a congenital musical disability, it’s been shown that for everyone else who claims to be, or has been accused of being, tone deaf, the issue is emotional. I’m not saying everyone can become a professional singer –– just that everyone can learn to make changes, build their self-confidence and sing in tune with other people.
So what does that have to do with English pronunciation?
Well some people pick up accents more quickly than others just as there are people who are able to sing “in tune” more quickly than others. But just as “everyone can sing,” everyone can learn to make changes to their accent through hard work and patience. It’s not about replacing one accent with another. It’s simply about making adjustments to make an accent more intelligible – decreasing misunderstandings, increasing listener comfort so that they’re focusing on the content.
But making changes to one’s accent is a very public statement, and there’s tremendous vulnerability attached.
An accent can express many things about ourselves, not just our country of birth, but also our culture, our family background, the friends we hang out with, our general sense of self-confidence, etc. An accent can help us feel a sense of belonging or a sense of alienation. It’s no surprise that changing aspects of one’s accent can make us feel so vulnerable. Just as getting up to sing when you’ve had a lifetime of criticism can feel intolerable, going out into the world with a changed accent can feel intimidating. But just as “everyone can sing” –– some more quickly than others, yes –– everyone can make adjustments to their accent for increased intelligibility and social connections.
Patience with one’s self and studying in a trusted and trusting environment are key.
Don’t forget to check out The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel for my latest weekly video, One-Minute Words, and videos on English pronunciation.
2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the relationship between “tone deafness” and learning pronunciation ”
I’m one of those people who always thought I can’t possible sing or carry a tune. I agree with you, singing phobia is due to a psychological fear, or discomfort, or… past anxiety. But I have yet to overcome this. And yet English is my fourth language!
So interesting. Did you pick up other languages by necessity or by choice, and how old were you when you learned your other languages?