Principal Coach Jamie Chapman gives his insights working with Spanish speakers who wish to soften their Spanish accents whilst speaking in English. Read on for some useful tips if you are Spanish on improving your Spanish Accent when speaking in English, so you can be clearly understood and feel confident when you communicate. And there are also some useful insights if you have Spanish friends!
In November it will be 23 years since I first started teaching accent reduction. From the Russian accent to Spanish Accent, I have worked with clients from all over the world to achieve their goals from accent reduction. When I start working with a client I find the first couple of questions are often the same: 'Can I soften my accent?' and 'How do I soften my accent?'.
Probably the best starting point is to define what an accent is. Essentially, an accent is simply a habit of speech. So it can certainly change. But, as is always the case, when trying to change a habit - it takes time, practice and repetition.
So that leaves us with the 'How'...
Accent Softening and Reducing the Spanish Accent
Today, I'm looking specifically at reducing a Spanish accent. However, I'm going to start with a big caveat. At the London Speech Workshop we never, ever treat you like an 'accent'. We never make assumptions about how you speak or pronounce things based on where you tell us you're from. I'm working with a lady from Bulgaria at the moment, and she was telling me about an accent coach she has worked with previously who kept telling her "You're from Bulgaria, so you will be pronouncing these words like this" - even though she knew she wasn't. Absolutely infuriating.
That doesn't happen at LSW. We always start by taking you through each and every sound of neutral spoken English and identifying exactly where your personal tricky sounds are. We not only identify if a sound is tricky, but why it's tricky - and identify what is happening in the mouth to distort the sound. We then build a bespoke programme for you, based solely on your goals, your tricky sounds, and the order it will be most beneficial for you to work on them.
Phew! I'm glad to get that off my chest! While all the above is essential to the way we work at London Speech Workshop, it is, of course, also true that there tends to be certain patterns of pronunciation depending on nationality.
So let's look at a couple of things to look out for when softening a typical Spanish accent.
Softening your Spanish Accent and Mouth Shape
As I touched on before, the shape your mouth makes is crucial to the way a sound is pronounced. This is the scientific bit of accent softening. There's always a reason why a sound is distorting. Let's take the 'A' sound in 'CAT'. Your lips should be wide (think of a 'smile') and, at the same time, your jaw has to be down. At LSW we always like to give you a 'tip' to try to unlock the sound for each client. With this sound, we suggest you imagine taking a big bite of a hamburger! If your lips aren't wide enough, or if your jaw isn't low enough, you won't get the hamburger inside your mouth! The most common fault for Spanish speakers is that your lips don't get wide enough for this sound. When this happens, CAT can sound like CUT.
Another key vowel sound is the distinction between the short 'i' (SIT) and the long 'ee' (SEAT). As you may be aware, in English there are short vowels and long vowels. The question I'm always asked when working with clients is 'how short is a short vowel - and how long is a long vowel?' Very basically, I always say that a short vowel should last about as long as a 'click of the fingers' (SIT). Whereas when saying a long vowel, you can try putting your hands on the table and doing a little 'lean in' (SEAT). This difference in length is crucial - especially with these two sounds - as they can easily cause confusion and loss of clarity. 'I don't want to LIVE here' can sound like 'I don't want to LEAVE here' if we don't get the length right! In addition to length, the mouth position is also slightly different for each sound. For the long 'ee' (SEAT), the lips are a bit wider, and the tongue a bit higher, than for the short 'i' (BIT).
From a Spanish Accent to an English Accent and the B/V confusion
Now let's look at a couple of common consonant confusions. Spanish speakers frequently confuse the V and B sounds. Again, this is due to the mouth position. 'B' is made purely with the lips (imagine being a baby and blowing bubbles - bubbabubba!) 'V' is made with your top teeth on your lower lip (imagine biting your lip). The key is to remember that your top lip stays up and out of the way on a 'V' sound.
Spelling is another area that can cause confusion. I'm aware that English spelling doesn't always appear to be entirely logical! However, part of our job is not only to help you pronounce each sound accurately, but also to give you the confidence to identify through spelling which sound a word is supposed to be pronounced with! For Spanish speakers, a common mistake often occurs with the letter 'J'. We need to be sure it is never pronounced like a 'Y'. This isn't because Spanish speakers struggle to make a 'J' sound, but because the spelling is misleading them.
Of course, an accent doesn't simply consist of the technical accuracy of the various vowels and consonants. It's much more than that.
As I'm sure you're aware, each accent has its own distinct rhythm, tune and melody. We call this intonation.
Intonation and Improving your English Accent
I've lost count of the number of Spanish speakers who've told me that the 'tune' of the Spanish accent tends to be much flatter than its English equivalent. This means intonation is especially important.
Often, intonation is taught as an 'add-on' to the course - as if it were an additional vowel sound. Not at the London Speech Workshop. We know that good intonation is vital. It's worth more than every vowel and consonant sound put together. I'll be writing in detail about LSW's approach to intonation in a future blog - but, essentially, at the London Speech Workshop, we don't believe accent softening is simply about changing the way you sound.
It's about enabling you to be more fully you in the English language.
Our mission is to give you the tools to start playing with, enjoying, and expressing yourself in the beautiful English language as if it were your own. Because it belongs to you as much as it belongs to me.