By Jill Diamond
The United States has been referred to as a melting pot of cultures for many years. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines that as “a city or country where different types of people live together and gradually create one community.” Every decade the US receives new immigrants as they embark on making a better life for their families.
Because the US is such a huge country, it has never been widely successful at second language education. Citizens don’t see the need. Unlike Europe where different language-speaking countries border each other, most states in the US border other English-speaking states. English is the norm. And non-native English speakers are largely required to become proficient in English in order to compete professionally.
Even with advanced language skills, vocabulary and grammar are not enough. When it comes to spoken abilities, accent seems to be the greatest barrier for most fluent non-native English speakers as they seek to move their careers forward.
So what is an accent? The official definition is “to say a part of a word with greater stress or force.” That definition does not include the correct pronunciation of a sound such as /th/ or /s/. I bring that up for a reason. Our accent training also does not pay much attention to individual sounds, but instead focuses on the music of the language—where we put the stress on a syllable in a word and even where we put the emphasis on words in a sentence.
Let’s take the word industrial as an example. We can break the word down into four syllables or parts: In – dus – tri – al. Start by noticing that every syllable has a vowel in it. That’s because all syllables must have a vowel sound. If you say each of the syllables with the same stress that would mean you are saying each syllable with the same length, volume and intonation.
However, in order to use the English accent correctly, you need to make one of those syllables longer, louder and higher in tone. Can you guess which syllable in industrial is accented? It is the second syllable, “dus.” Try saying the word a few times, making that syllable longer, louder and higher in tone.
There are many resources out there for you to learn how to emphasize syllables. You can start with this video on our YouTube Channel. And, you can learn about basic stress rules here. Let’s look at one more point about accent as it relates to words in a sentence.
We’ll use the same word industrial and put it into a sentence: The industrial cleaning industry is very competitive. In English we put greater emphasis on nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. So, in this sample sentence, here are those words—known as content words—in bold. The industrial cleaning industry is very competitive. All of the bold words need to be longer, louder and higher in tone just like the stressed syllables in words. The other words, called structure words, get less accent. They stay flat in tone, don’t have volume and are not long.
Getting the American accent right is not an easy task. And some of you may feel that your accent is holding you back in some way. It doesn’t have to. There are amazing tools out there to help you speak with more confidence, effectiveness and ease. Accent training will help you make progress in your career.
Remember that living in a melting pot does not mean that you need to eliminate your accent. In fact, your heritage is essential to the continued success of the hard working people in this country. However, taking the effort to increase the effectiveness of your English communication will only make it easier for you to succeed.
Jill Diamond is a Communication Coach, Accent Specialist, and the Founder and CEO of Accent Ace. Accent Ace is a communication skills training boutique specializing in voice and speech techniques. Learn more about available resources at www.accentace.com/products, contact the company online or at 212.206.3900, and check out the Accent Ace Blog.
(image courtesy of blog.linguistlist.org)