The Perfect Starting Point

A good way to kick off your orientation session is to present the handout titled The Origin of Accents and ask questions such as, “Ever wonder about why you are speaking with an accent? How do accents happen?”

The best answers or explanations to those questions include:

  • An accent “happens” to any adult who learns a second language.
  • Your American English is accented because you are using the pronunciation rules of your first/native language.
  • Everyone, EVERYONE, speaks with an accent. There is no such thing as unaccented speech.
  • An accent can “happen” to any adult regardless of age, education, or cultural background.

You might tell your client, “Right now, I am speaking with my American accent, and across the United States there are many variations of the American English accent. If I were to visit Paris and order something in a cafe, my American accent would be very obvious, even though I studied French in school for three years.” You might also comment on how funny it is to think that most people believe only other people have accents.

Every language has its own set of pronunciation rules – a phonemic repertoire – a menu of sounds. When we compare any two languages (menus), we may see some items in common, and we will likely see many differences. Those sounds that are used by both languages are not creating any challenges with clear and accurate pronunciation. The differences between the two, however, are where most of the challenges will be found. There are probably sounds in American English that are never used in the client’s native language. They are not part of the phonetic system of that language. Likewise, in many other languages there will be phonemes that are less familiar (or completely unfamiliar) to American English speakers, and they would present a pronunciation challenge to any non-native speaker. This is a good reason to emphasize that it is not necessary to learn English pronunciation from the ground up; there are already many pronunciation units and patterns in American English that do not create any challenges. The specific challenge areas revealed by the individual’s PESL speech pattern analysis are what you’ll be addressing together in the training course.

If a client practices regularly – daily – they can expect to improve. It’s as simple as that. The specific amount of improvement, change or progress will be unquestionably presented in the pre- and post-training analysis comparison. Practice builds awareness. Awareness fosters the ability to practice more effectively. Change your habitual patterns, and you acquire a new skill. The speaker will become consciously competent in controlling and executing speech patterns over time – and be able to use them when they are needed most. The newly learned patterns do not become automatic, nor do they take over cultural and linguistic traits that are linked to each individual’s identity. The acquiring of this skill gives the speaker the option to present confidently and competently with complete control of their speech patterns.

Practice, however, should become a practical part of the student’s day as soon as possible. Just knowing there is a difference between two pronunciation styles does not make one an expert at using both styles. Reading about a topic will never lead to the level of expertise experienced by someone who engages in and applies the topic in a meaningful manner. The speaker should look for daily opportunities to apply their new skills to home, social and work related routines. On a regularly scheduled basis, that practice should involve getting in the ring with the instructor. After all, the purpose of each session in a PESL program is to teach the student how to practice.

Why are there “3 Languages” represented in Orientation Handout #1?

American English represents the target and the goal, and it can be somewhat of an idealistic goal – but it is the desired result of the client. When used accurately, American English has a different structure and rule set than the client’s Native Language – even if it is English as spoken outside of the United States.

Your Native Language is the program the client has been using until they were introduced to American English. They then made some slight modifications to the program when they introduced the phonological and morphological differences of American English, resulting in their current version of Your Accented English.

Your Accented English is a great place to be – a terrific operating system – if the accuracy level is high enough to break down communication barriers. Any speaker who demonstrates 10 or more errors on a PESL screener, or a few dozen or more errors on a Pattern Analysis, is going to be experiencing communication barriers and breakdown. The PESL program does not eliminate accents. It eliminates the barriers and breakdowns. 

How Can We Be Certain of Client Progress?

We can’t. And you should tell the client. Success, change, progress and improvement – those are all the responsibility of the client. This isn’t a pill or a magic spell. It is the client and not the instructor who holds all of the power.

As the coach and instructor, you’re going to demonstrate what the best players do. You’re going to show them what accuracy and authenticity look like in spoken American English. You’re going to motivate them to practice every day, and teach them a trick or two along the way. There’s a long history of successes behind the PESL program; those who practice every day for 12 weeks consistently show improvement in pronunciation accuracy go up by 50-70%. Anecdotally, many active PESL instructors will tell you that improvement rates of 80-90% are not very rare.

There are three things shared by all those who progressed from being a speaker with an accent that created barriers, to a skilled speaker of American English – barrier free:

  1. They showed up for each scheduled session, and minimized interruptions in the course delivery process. In other words, they didn’t take several weeks off during the planned course program.
  2. They participated as if everything was on the line. In some cases, it is. In addition to the persistent frustration caused by the communication barrier, there may also be career opportunities, social and personal rewards, professional esteem on the horizon – just out of reach. With the right mindset, a clear agenda, and a great coach, the client can go over that horizon with all cylinders firing.  Encourage your clients to play with everything out on the table. They must follow your models and break through awkward and unfamiliar new sensations during the exercises.
  3. They do their homework. They follow the practice instructions carefully, week after week and day after day. Progress is a reward revealed after a great deal of commitment has been demonstrated. It is nearly impossible for the client to gauge their own progress during a course. The effort will be rewarded at the summit – when the client applies everything they have been learning and practicing to that second analysis at the program’s conclusion.

This is the first of several planned blog entries on the topic of reviewing and revisiting the Orientation segment of Session1 in the PESL program.