Changing a Speech Habit (with regards to accented sounds)
Changing any habit is hard. And changing speech habits is especially difficult because they are deeply rooted and often an indelible part of who we are. And when we are talking about changing the way we sound, especially when it is part of an accent pattern, they are really ingrained.
I’ve worked with enough clients to know that changing an accent is difficult and challenging, but very doable. I’ve seen people vastly reduce a strong accent, making them not only intelligible, but really effective, confident speakers. And I’ve worked with actors who have learned a new dialect or accent for a part as if they’ve been speaking that way their whole life. We all have the same basic apparatus—lungs, diaphragm, vocal folds, articulators, etc. And we all have very complex brains.
Some background… As children, we learn language by employing both our left hemisphere, which is responsible for mono-linear cognition (to keep things simple) and our right hemisphere, which is associated more with 3D spatial acuity, artistic and musical ability. The phonetic (sound) system and intonation and rhythm patterns of our first language carry over into our second language, especially if the second language is learned or mastered after puberty, when there is a critical developmental change in our brains. Our sound patterns become automatic. After age 12, language dominates to the left hemisphere, there is less neural plasticity between the two hemispheres, and you could say that we learn a second language more 2-dimensionally than 3-dimensionally. However, our analytical thinking skills improve, allowing us to learn and develop strategies and techniques to compensate for what’s lost, and affect change.
First… As babies, we listen for and repeat sounds that make a meaningful difference. If two sounds don’t change the meaning of a word; for example, hypothetically, if “led” and “red” don’t change the meaning of an object or idea, we won’t hear the difference. After around age 12, we have to train our ears to hear and then our mouths to produce the two different sounds. Once a person can hear the difference and then adequately produce the sounds, then it is time to work on incorporating this new learning and awareness into our speaking patterns.
So… After really learning this new sound (not going into detail here), you’ll practice and master words and phrases (sound patterns) that have your target sound (you’re working on one target at a time). You’ll practice it in all phonetic contexts, so that you will have experienced transitioning into and out of this sound from every physical articulatory position. Speech is gymnastics. You’ll be working on muscle memory skills by repeating and mastering words that you use frequently, especially important words, like ones integral to your work.
A semi-formal schedule can be developed. You may choose to practice the words and phrases for about 5 minutes everyday, preferably several times a day. Morning is a good time because your mind is fresh, and you are reminding your mouth and your brain of what you will be targeting during the day. You can squeeze in practice while you’re waiting for the train, as a break at your desk, etc. It really can be a mental break from everything else you’re doing and thinking about. Some of my clients say there is a meditational aspect to it, or add practice to the their meditation routine.
Next… You will consciously use the words and the target sound, pronouncing it correctly in real communicative contexts. You’ll continue to say the word(s) this way, with people, until it becomes natural, until it is “you” making these sounds. You’ll soon forget the old way you said the words. Your brain will start to generalize the sound into similar sound contexts. For example, if you’ve mastered the word “elevator “ (working on l and r), words like “elephant” and “relevant” will start to become easier. Also, your awareness of the sound, in your speech and in the speech of others, will have increased exponentially. And your ability to self-correct will also aid in establishing the new pattern.
More advice… Plan mini-dialogues for yourself. Rehearse possible exchanges—playing yourself! Also, do this: decide to use your sound/new speaking habit, consciously, ten times a day—have triggers; for example, each time you pick up the phone, every time you see a certain person at work, each time you’re at the water fountain… for the first ten seconds of the conversation (you’ll need to concentrate on what you’re saying after that), you will be aware of your speech and the target sound within your speech. Some examples: “Hello, this is Renee.” (working on l and r); “How about lunch?”; “Are you ready?” This repeated practice is a powerful tool for change and leads to habituation.
Make opportunities for yourself to speak. Make conversation with the doorman, the shop clerk, a neighbor… they’ll just think you’re really nice!