Clients will often ask, “Why is Sofia Vergara so easy to understand even though she still has a heavy accent?” That’s because actors, like Vergara and many others, who are not native English speakers have learned a very important aspect of the English language. They have tapped into the the rhythm of English. They stress the right syllables, change how fast they speak, and make sure to maintain final consonant sounds.
Yes, it’s correct that actress Selma Hayek, doesn’t pronounce every English vowel completely accurately. It’s true that Chow Yun-Fat doesn’t use perfect grammar. Fortunately for them, native English speakers aren’t listening to every vowel and consonant sound, or to every individual word.
Native English speakers are listening for stressed syllables and words. This information signals in English what information is most relevant. Stressed syllables and words are spoken slightly longer, slightly louder, and at a different pitch than the words around them.
Stretch out stressed syllables
Watch this clip of Sofia Vergara and listen to how she stretches out stressed syllables in words that carry the most relevant information in that phrase. The length of stressed words she uses in English is different than how she speaks in her native Spanish. Stretching out stressed syllables and words, and shortening the length of less important words, allows you to closely match the rhythm of native English speakers.
Slow your speech rate
One way these actors have achieved this skill is by slowing their speaking rate down to allow time for the stressed syllables and words to stand out. Selma Hayek has a strong Spanish accent, but her English is very clear. Not only does she have a good command of syllable and word stress in English, but she speaks with a more relaxed pace in English compared to when she speaks Spanish. This allows the pattern of stressed words and non-stressed words to create the rhythm of spoken English.
Don’t leave off final consonants
Another important technique for speaking clearly in English is to maintain the final consonant sounds in words. Many non-native English speakers, including native Spanish and Cantonese speakers, tend to leave off the final consonant sounds in English words. Maintaining these sounds help link the final sound of one word to the beginning sound of the next. This helps your speech sound fluent.
Listen to how Chow Yun-Fat speaks English in this clip. Notice how he pronounces the final consonant sounds in words and they flow from one word to the next without sounding choppy. His use of syllable stress also adds to his speech clarity.
These actors are wonderful examples of how you can maintain an accent in your native language but still speak clearly in English. When you learn another language, the closer you can match the rhythm of the language, the easier you are to understand. Learning how to improve your spoken English requires focus on your syllable stress, speaking rate, final consonants and linking words together. This is in addition to improving your vowel and consonant pronunciation. An experienced accent coach can identify the areas you need to focus on and give you the detailed feedback you need to improve your speech clarity.