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 gently, just 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.