“I want to get rid of my accent and sound just like a native English speaker.”
Does this sound familiar to you?
Perhaps you feel that life would be easier if you spoke as if you grew up speaking English.
You wouldn’t have to repeat yourself on that conference call. You could just ‘blend in’ like everyone else when speaking to clients.
I understand the desire to speak English clearly and not have any trouble being understood. It probably would make life easier on a day-to-day basis.
I have one question for you…
What’s more important: to speak English with a “perfect” native-like accent, or to speak clear English so you are always understood?
Speaking English with a native accent is not the only way to speak English clearly.
The reality is everyone has an accent.
English is the most commonly spoken language around the world, so there are a wide variety of English accents.
As of 2003, English was spoken by 1.4 billion people around the world. Only 4% are native speakers (Crystal 2003). The number of non-native English speakers is even higher now.
There is no one acceptable way to speak English
It’s easy to see why people assume North American or British accents are the most acceptable ways to speak English. It’s how most of us hear English spoken in popular movies and TV shows. These accents have a level of acceptance that non-native speakers aspire to.
However, 96% of English speakers have an accent influenced by their native language.
It’s simply not practical or necessary to sound like a native speaker. If everyone speaks English with a different accent, the only necessity is that everyone can understand each other.
For example, let’s say you are originally from China and currently work in the US. You find yourself on a conference call with people from India, Australia, and Brazil. The 4 people on that call will speak English with 4 different accents.
It’s not important that you have a native-sounding English accent. What is important is that you speak English clearly, so everyone on the call can understand you without difficulty.
What is necessary to speak English clearly?
To be understood, it’s most important to speak English with the rate, rhythm, stress, and speech sounds that your listeners expect.
Even native English speakers have a wide range of accents, but they share the same underlying rules to their patterns of speech.
Clear English speech has these 4 essential qualities:
1. Consistent vowel length
English has approximately 15 vowel sounds. That’s more than most languages.
- Some vowels have short durations, as in words like ship, bet and hop.
- Some vowels have longer durations, as in words like sheep, bait and hope.
Consistently using the correct vowel length can avoid word errors that may confuse, or even offend, your listener.
Often times, non-native speakers who don’t understand vowel length will avoid saying phrases like “I love the beach” or “I bought gas at the Sheetz station” because they are afraid they will accidentally say something offensive instead.
2. Accurate syllable stress
To speak clear English, use consistent and accurate syllable stress.
English is a stress-timed language. This means that stress plays a major role in word recognition. Every word in English has one syllable that receives the most stress.
If you say words with no syllable stress, or you stress the wrong syllable, your speech clarity will suffer. Your listener — especially native English speakers — can get overwhelmed trying to understand you. It’s like trying to recognize a song that’s being played to a different rhythm.
Words like machine (muh-SHEEN) and development (duh-VEH-lup-ment) have specific stress patterns that listeners depend on to recognize the word.
3. Dominant focus words
Native English speakers emphasize important words in a phrase with more stress. Words that carry the most important or new information in a phrase are known as focus words.
The rhythm of English is based on speaking focus words slower and with more stress, and speeding up and linking together less important words in a phrase.
For example, if you wanted to know if someone had lunch you might ask the question:
“Did you EAT yet?”
The word ‘eat’ is the most important information in that question so it will be spoken slightly louder, longer and with a different pitch than the other words.
Someone might reply:
“I went out for SUSHI.”
The word ‘sushi’ is now the most important word because it answers the question, so it will receive the most stress.
Pronouncing focus words slower and with more energy than the surrounding words creates the recognizable rhythm of English sentences.
4. A moderate rate:
It may sound like fluent English speakers talk fast (and some of them really are fast talkers), but clear English is spoken at a rate of 150-170 words per minute. The average native speaker talks at about 160 words per minute.
How can you tell how fast you speak? Record yourself speaking conversationally for 2 minutes. Count up the number of words and divide by 2. If you’re slower than that, it’s okay; as long as your speech is fluent and steady, your clarity won’t be impacted. If you speak faster than 170 words per minute, practice slowing down your rate.
Add pauses between sentences and topic changes. Be sure to stress focus words and use syllable stress. A relaxed speaking rate is enjoyable to listen to and will draw your listener in.
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Everybody who speaks English has an accent to someone else.
If we all sounded the same, English would be very dull indeed. After all, your accent is a part of who you are and where you’re from.
No matter what your accent is, there are universal, accent-independent qualities that make English clear and easy to understand to everyone.
You can still sound like yourself and speak English as clearly as a native speaker.