Thoughts on staying motivated and managing expectations

Staying motivated-Managing expectations (2)For the last two weeks, I’ve talked about how practising in a different way, in small manageable chunks with complete attention, totally absorbed in the task at hand, can bring about improvement more quickly. It’s much more effective to practise for shorter periods before the muscles start to weaken and the mind starts to wander.

Still, there’s what I call the “frustration” factor. You’re working with full concentration and practising every day, but in your own mind, change seems to be taking forever.

How do you stay motivated? How do you keep going? How do you not give up?

The first thing, of course, is to have a very clear long-term goal in mind. Is it:

  • to get through conversations without being asked to repeat yourself?
  • to get that promotion that has been held back because of your communication skills?
  • to communicate more effectively with colleagues, clients, customers, patients?
  • to make yourself understood on the telephone?
  • to speak more like your kids?

Having your long-term goal clearly in mind is very important. Equally important is having reasonable expectations: understanding that learning takes place in five stages and recognizing and embracing each stage as it arrives.

Stage 1

When you first begin the study of accent management, expect that you’ll leave class and forget everything you’ve learned. Why should you remember anything? You’re letting go of habits you’ve held from the time you started learning this new language – quite possibly years! You’re going to refocus your brain, reprogram your ears, retrain your muscles and strengthen your memory. So just congratulate yourself on having had the courage to actually begin a program of study.

Stage 2

Very soon you begin to develop awareness. You start noticing sounds that you’d never heard before. Certain patterns begin to emerge. You hear syllable stress. This is very exciting. Embrace it, but don’t get too excited. Just keep practising exactly as you have been, in manageable little chunks with full attention, every day. Keep listening passively and absorb what you hear. The filter between your native language and English is beginning to dissipate.

Stage 3

You start noticing your mistakes. You may get frustrated, even angry with yourself. You just can’t seem to make the changes you need to match the sounds and rhythms you’re hearing all around you. That’s okay. Your mind is making the connections. You’re on the verge of change! Keep practising in small manageable chunks, with full attention.

Stage 4

It happens at last! Your awareness shifts. Your muscles get into the correct positions to create the sounds you’ve been hearing. You’re remembering where to put the syllable stress, the word stress. You begin experimenting with the short-form English you’ve been hearing but were afraid to use: gotta, hafta, doncha, wanna. You start, tentatively, linking one syllable to the next.

Stage 5

Now your speech begins to flow as your muscles get stronger and move more quickly. You incorporate more of the English vernacular. You drop consonants, change vowels, add words and expressions in a way you had never thought you would.

These are the stages of learning, and they arrive with continuous concerted focused practice. There are bumps along the way, for sure. At times you may feel stuck.

But like a baby, you’ve been taking small steps, falling down and getting back up, listening to the world around you with innocence and wonder until you start to take note, understand, imitate and make things your own. So keep your long-term goal in mind, but be supportive of your growth.

Be patient. Be determined. And above all, don’t give up.

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More thoughts on how to practise better and improve faster

More practise better.In last week’s post Thoughts on how to practise better and improve faster, I talked about the importance of working in small chunks of time on a regular basis and about how we don’t even have to practise out loud. When we can clearly visualize until we feel muscle movements and, in the case of accent modification, also hear the sounds we’d like to create, we can improve.

I talk a lot about practising and listening with full attention. But what does that mean exactly?

Well the first thing, of course, is working without distractions. So for the ten minutes (more or less)  that you commit to practise –– no email, no text messages, no Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram –– just you and your lesson.

Listen carefully to the instructions you’ve been given. Listen to the sound you want to recreate. Try to listen without using your native language as a point of reference. Just listen.

Now, let’s take just one frequently problematic vowel as an example: the English /i/ as it silver. (Please note that I used the English Phonetic Alphabet (EPA), not the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). If you want more information on the EPA, read my 2017 blog An Easier Way to Learn English Vowels with its accompanying YouTube video.)

So, whenever you say “bit,” it sounds like “beat.” You try to say “fit,” but it sounds like “feet.” I could have also used the opposite Ey/ (as in green) vowel as an example, but I want to keep this simple.

First imagine the parts of your tongue that need to move.

Close your eyes and focus on your tongue and your lips. Your mouth is a little open. Visualize and feel the tip of your tongue resting behind your bottom teeth. Visualize and feel the rest of your tongue resting on the bottom of your mouth, just inside your bottom side teeth, not quite touching. Your jaw is still. Your lips are still.

Now imagine there’s a string in the front of your tongue behind the tip. The string lifts your tongue very gentlyjust the tiniest bit. Isolate this movement of the front of your tongue, without the tip of your tip, in your mind. Make it very tiny. You may also imagine that the centre of your tongue is attached to the dent in your upper lip. Imagine lifting the centre of your lip and pulling the centre of your tongue with it. Just a little. Just a little.

Next, practise doing this same movement slowly for real.  The tip of the tongue remains behind the bottom front teeth. The sides of the tongue don’t move. Only the front of the tongue rolls or lifts up the tiniest bit. Try rolling the centre of the tongue by itself. Then try lifting it with the dent in your upper lip.

Now listen to the sound of the vowel and imagine saying it as you lift the front of the tongue every so slightly, still letting the tip and the sides of the tongue be still.

Finally, say the exercise quietly – the vowel alone, then with the associated words. Don’t worry about the other vowels or the consonants that you may not be able to reproduce accurately for now. Just focus on the vowel /i/ as in silver.

And there you have it:

  • Set aside small manageable bits of time
  • Remove distractions.
  • Focus on correcting one thing at a time.
  • Drop preconceptions. Listen to sounds as if you were a baby in your mother’s womb, as if you’re hearing them for the first time.
  • Fill your imagination with the task at hand. Work in your mind first.
  • Work very slowly and isolate movements.
  • Do this for five minutes … or ten minutes … or fifteen minutes if you can find the time. But find the time every day to practise in this way.
  • And don’t give up.

I guarantee you’ll make changes you never thought you could.

And before you know it, those changes will be noticed by friends, family, patients, customers and colleagues.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, your experiences or your questions.

To listen to two Canadian accents presenting a new English word or expression every week, check out One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel.

Thoughts on how to practise better and improve faster

Practise better. Improve faster.

I often find that students have a misconception about practice: that it takes long hours of steady practice to improve. If they don’t have that kind of time, they give up altogether.

But it’s not about long hours of steady practice. It’s about steadfastness with practice over a long time. It’s about not giving up. It’s about finding little chunks of time for as little as five minutes or at most 15 minutes throughout the day, every week, and working with full attention.

It’s about countering every negative thought that says “I’m too busy. I can’t do this. I’ll never get it.” with a thought that says “I seize little fragments of time for me alone. I can do this. I will get it.”

No private place to put on your headphones, listen to the lesson and practise your homework?

  • How about finding 10 minutes in the bathroom?
  • How about 10 minutes in bed before you turn off the light?
  • How about 10 minutes in the morning before you get out of bed?
  • How about getting out of your workplace for a 10-minute walk at lunchtime?
  • How about a quiet 10-minute escape to the stairwell once or twice during the day?
  • How about 10 minutes in their darkened bedroom as soon as the kids fall asleep?

Heck, you don’t even need to practise out loud.

There’s a therapy and exercise method called the Feldenkrais technique (the origins are unimportant) that’s all about gentle movement and directed attention, in which we’re often told to visualize rather than do a particular movement. Extraordinarily, we can achieve the same positive results. In fact brain studies have clearly shown, for a long time now, that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. Visualization is being used to enhance performance, reduce stress, increase motivation, self-confidence, efficiency. It can even help the paralytic learn to move limbs and machinery with the help of electrodes and computers.

Can you choose to find time on your own for just a few minutes each day to suspend judgment, listen intently and practise attentively before your mind starts to wander and your muscles start to weaken?

It’s a strangely simple technique with a huge reward: less stress and faster improvement.

What’s holding you back?

What techniques have you found to maintain a steady practice?

Don’t forget to check out the latest word-of-the week at One-Minute Words on The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqJIW9b8ceo&list=UUtLnMIqmYW9uRCi_Kx48AaQ

Thoughts on Identity and the Music of Language

Identity & the Music of Language 2I was always aware of the question of “identity” in accent modification, but it didn’t really hit me in the face until, as I mentioned in last week’s post Thoughts on “Identity” and Accent Modification, one of my clients brought it up in class. She talked with great insight about the internal shame she had absorbed related to accent modification as well as the loss of identity (feeling like a fake) in choosing to take on the accent of the native speaker.

Not all students are dealing with the psychological trauma of political tensions in their native country. However, the issue of feeling like a “fake” is something I’d heard before.

But what if we were to focus instead on the music of language? What if we could step outside our fixed ideas of identity and adopt a more open and fluid sense of self?

In my hometown Toronto, we can turn on CBC radio or Radio Canada (Canada’s English and French national broadcasting systems) and hear artists singing in languages other than English or French. We can hear music from Africa, Latin America, South America, for example –– and that, without even searching out a specialty radio station. We may not understand the words, but we respond to the rhythm and the melodies. As we listen and respond viscerally, for that brief period we become one with the music.

Can we do the same with spoken language – listen for its music and respond with the innocence of a child? Can we take the time to listen in a new way and go beyond the words? Can we go beyond consonants and vowels, beyond the memory of muscles and mind? Can we embrace new rhythms and melodies by putting aside assumptions about who we think we need to be by listening with attention to the musicality of the speech around us and absorbing it without judgment?

After all, we can learn to sing a song in a language other than our own and dance to the music of a country far away from home. We may not be the best singer or the best dancer but we can sing and dance with abandon. In the same way, it’s not about losing an accent. It’s about flowing with more of the sounds of the everyday speech and dialect, the vernacular, of the adopted language.

Far from being a “fake” for reshaping a native accent with the music of the vernacular,  I think we become richer. We experience a little shift, knowing that we’re no less who we are for embracing a place in the middle with enough room for everyone in the music of English.

And speaking of everyday speech, check out “ vernacular” in this week’s One-Minute Words.

 

Thoughts on “Identity” and Accent Modification

sitting on the fence questionThe other day there was a client in one of my group classes who made the most interesting observation. This person was, as are most of my clients, a very advanced speaker of ESL. She had been in English-speaking countries for the last ten years and was picking up the sounds of vowels and consonants very quickly. But finding the “music” of English was particularly challenging: the idea of linking consonants and vowels from syllable to syllable to find a flowing rhythm, and changing pitch to find melodies that express meaning more readily.  There was also some resistance to what I call “short-form” English, the spoken expressions that we native English speakers use all the time but which have almost nothing to do with written English (e.g., wanna, gonna, gotta, hafta).

There were two issues that came up, both equally important.

The first was political. In my client’s native country, there are two large populations with different languages. When speaking the language of the majority population with the accent of the majority population, her own community judged her harshly. They wanted and expected a more guttural sound in keeping with the native language of her community.

In learning to speak the English language, she had absorbed the “shame” of her community’s judgment – the implication that speaking a language other than your own with the accent of the native speaker was, perhaps the gentle word is, a “sellout.”

The second,  which I’ve sometimes heard from other clients, was that she felt that by imitating our “short-form” spoken English, using expressions like “wanna,” “gotta,” “gonna,” etc., she was just being “fake.”

These are interesting and sensitive challenges. When she recognized that there was “shame” involved in making changes to her accent, she felt a great sense of relief and freedom. And yet the general sense that absorbing the “music” of English to sound more like a native speaker could cause her to lose her identify was a different story.  This part was not about the intensity of shame, but more about the fear of losing a part of yourself, your roots.

So the question is “Do we really lose our identity when we choose, consciously or unconsciously, to incorporate the sounds of the vernacular of our adopted country?” Must identity be tied to accent or is identity something internal – something felt – a deep love of one’s native country,  native culture.

I would really love to hear from speakers of English as a Second Language on this.

Meanwhile, check out the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel at One-Minute Words for the web series One-Minute Words and other videos on pronunciation.