Accent Reduction Online
It can be REALLY difficult to speak a foreign language without an accent, wouldn't you agree?
Well, it turns out, you can completely get rid of your accent with the proper approach...
...and this approach is called accent reduction.
On this page, I'm going to teach you various techniques that you can use to speak any language without an accent. These techniques are based on elementary phonetics and are very easy to understand.
What Does It Mean to Speak Without an Accent?
Before we begin, let me clarify one crucial thing:
Speaking a language without an accent means that you can articulate its sounds just like a native speaker of that language would.
So, what exactly are these language sounds that you must master?
Here they are:
Pace and intensity of speech are also very important factors.
Now, you might be thinking:
Well, because mimicking is not as easy as it sounds. Some people just can't seem to mimic sounds well while some others are very good at it (like this parrot, obviously).
The reality is, though, that it's very difficult for most of us to sound like a native speaker when speaking a second or third language.
Now, what if you had precise instructions on how to articulate the sounds of a language, wouldn't that take the guesswork out of it?
Well, don't go anywhere because this is EXACTLY what I have in store for you.
So, here's the plan:
First, we'll have a quick overview of phonetics and how it applies to pronunciation. If you want to articulate sounds properly, phonetics is your first port of call.
Secondly, the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA will be introduced. This will be our main tool to learn how to articulate sounds the right way.
Then, using the IPA, I'll show you the techniques which will allow you to produce vowel sounds just like native speakers do.
After that, I'll tell you about the consonants. More specifically, I'll give you the necessary information for you to be able to articulate consonants that may cause you problems.
Finally, to put the finishing touches on your new and improved way of speaking, I'll briefly explain how to use the other symbols of the IPA, which represent the characteristics of language sounds such as lexical stress, tones, and length.
Phonetics - Understanding Sounds to Pronounce Them Better
Phonetics revolves around the sound of languages.
These sounds are produced by our vocal apparatus, which is the set of body parts we use to speak (that's basically our mouth, nose, throat and lungs).
Each of these sounds is produced at some specific place in the vocal apparatus and in some kind of manner.
Why does this matter?
Because this is the basis of every vowel and consonant.
So, if you want to easily learn how to correctly pronounce a consonant you're not familiar with, you'd better know about its place and manner of articulation. Vowels are similar in that regard.
And luckily for us, there's a system that classifies the sounds of most (if not all) languages according to place and manner of articulation. It's called the IPA.
The IPA - Our Main Tool to Pronounce Correctly
The International Phonetic Alphabet is a universal alphabet, applicable to most, if not all languages.
Its function is to represent, with the use of written characters, the sounds of language as closely as possible.
A string of such characters is called a phonetic transcription and it is always written between square brackets [ ] in the IPA and never between forward slashes / /.
I'll bet you often see transcriptions like the one on the right, right?
Well, it turns out that these transcriptions are not transcriptions of actual sounds; they are entirely different things called phonemic transcriptions and are found everywhere on the web.
So, be careful.
Below is the current IPA chart. It displays a lot of vowels, consonants and other symbols. We'll use some of its elements in the course of this page.
Have a quick look at it:
All of these symbols are fair game in phonetic transcriptions.
One more important thing before we go any further...
If you want to reduce your accent, you'll have to speak using ONLY the sounds of your language of interest.
I know that, intuitively, we tend to use the sounds of our native language when we speak another language, but you'll have to make an effort not to do so.
And if you closely follow what's next, you won't get this problem.
By the way, to type phonetic characters, Typeit is a very practical tool.
Pronouncing Vowels Correctly - The Basics
Let's start with the vowels.
Below is a complete and up-to-date vowel chart that I've made, which lists vowels according to openness, backness and roundedness.
Now, do you need to learn all of these?
In fact, I'll invite you to focus on only these vowels that you need to master to speak a language/dialect without an accent.
And in order to articulate them correctly...
...you'll have to learn how to control these three things with accuracy:
- How much your mouth opens
- The depth at which your tongue makes contact
- Rounding/unrounding your lips
As you can see on the chart, vowels on the left are more to the front of the mouth and those on the right, are more to the back.
Similarly, vowels at the top are more close and those at the bottom are more open.
And finally, vowels on the left of a pair are unrounded and those on the right are rounded.
As I'm teaching you the following techniques, you'll understand what these concepts are and how to use them to pronounce vowels correctly.
Let's begin with the Height Awareness Technique.
The Height Awareness Technique
The Height Awareness Technique can be used to make your mouth aware of vowel openness (or vowel height).
In other words, it makes you more sensitive to how much your mouth opens or closes as you pronounce different vowels.
It's a very simple process, as you'll see, and a necessary one to learn for the second, more important technique to come.
I would like to draw your attention to the vowel chart once again, or more specifically, this portion of it:
Now, what we're going to do is pronounce the vowels along that line in order to get a feel for how much our mouth opens as we go down.
How are we going to do that you might ask?
By making a list of words containing these vowels and then pronouncing only the vowel in each word, one after the other.
The list of words that I'll provide needs to be said in the Standard American English pronunciation.
Not familiar with this pronunciation?
There's no need to panic. Here's exactly how you can make a list of your own in a pronunciation you're familiar with:
Go THERE and, one by one, touch each vowel in question on that vowel chart:
It'll give you a list of words in several languages and dialects which contain this vowel. For each vowel, simply find a word in a language whose pronunciation you're familiar with and when you're done you'll have your list.
Note that you don't need to find words for each vowel, but the more the better.
In the case of the Standard American English pronunciation, not all the vowels above are present. So they'll be left out and that's fine.
Let's pronounce just the vowel sound (the underlined letters) in each word listed below, one after the other, and pay close attention to the feeling of your mouth opening as you go down the list:
IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT [a]: the transcription for the word ice is [aɪs]. Notice that there are two vowels in a row. Pronounce only the first vowel [a] when reading that word.
So, did you feel your mouth opening as you went down the list?
If not, read the list again and pay closer attention. Or make your own list of words in a pronunciation you're more familiar with.
But if you did feel it, good job. You probably noticed that the main difference between these vowels is how much wider your mouth opens as you go from one vowel to the next.
That's what the Height Awareness Technique is all about.
But hold on a minute...
...we skipped two vowels: [e] and [e̞].
Why did we do that?
Because, in the Standard American English pronunciation, [e̞] is not present at all and [e] isn't present on its own.
Actually, [a] isn't present on its own either, but it's easier to isolate so I put it on the list anyway.
Now, what if the language in which we want to get rid of our accent has these two vowels?
How do we learn to pronounce them correctly, or any other vowel on the chart for that matter?
Fortunately, our second technique aims to do just that.
The Vowel Extrapolation Technique - Discovering How to Pronounce Any Vowel on the chart
The aim of this technique is to discover how to articulate a specific vowel.
It's the exact technique I used to successfully learn how to pronounce the e sound in Latin American Spanish: [e̞].
Want to know the best part of this technique?
After you've learned how to articulate a vowel, it becomes a part of your arsenal, and you can use it to learn even more vowels.
Eventually, you'll be able to learn ANY vowel.
Also, after I've taught you the four techniques to articulate vowels, I'll teach you how to find out which vowels you actually need to focus on, so that you can get to it right away.
How to Perform the Technique
The Vowel Extrapolation Technique consists in articulating two vowels that you already know, one after the other, and then extrapolating to find the vowel that's in-between the two or next to them.
Sounds complicated? In fact, it's quite easy to do.
Let me show you the technique in action...
If you look at the chart, the vowel sound [e] is located between [i] (as in feet) and [ɛ] (as in met):
Now, since we're dealing mostly with openness, we know that as we go down from [i] to [ɛ], our mouth opens wider. The sound [e] is located half way between these two vowels.
So, if we want to pronounce [e], we need to somehow open our mouth just half as much when going from [i] to [ɛ]. Makes sense, right?
Here's how you can do this:
Pronounce the vowel sound [i] in the word feet, and, without interrupting the airflow, follow it by the vowel sound [ɛ] in the word met and try stopping in-between the two vowels.
Here's a short voice clip of myself showing you how to find the [e] sound:
Notice that I say both [i] and [ɛ] first, a couple of times, in order to get a feel for how much my mouth opens. Then, I focus on opening it only half as much, which results in me pronouncing [e] at the end.
Okay, so we found how to pronounce [e] on its own. Great!
Now what about the other vowels?
Well, for the moment, we'll be limited to finding how to articulate vowels according to openness only.
For this reason, I strongly suggest you keep reading because I'm going to tell you about the two other crucial aspects of vowels: backness and roundedness.
After you've become familiar with these two, you'll be able to literally pronounce any vowel on that chart with the Vowel Extrapolation Technique.
Articulating Rounded Vowels
Before we move on to vowel backness, I'll give you a quick trick on how to pronounce rounded vowels.
It can be used to pronounce front and near front rounded vowel sounds that are found in languages like French, German and Danish, just to name a few.
Rounded vowels are the set of vowels lying on the right of each pair of vowels on the chart.
Here they are:
They're the easiest to articulate, if you already know their unrounded counterpart, that is.
And if you've read about the Height Awareness Technique from earlier, you should already be familiar with at least some of them, namely, the front and near front unrounded vowels.
These are vowels like [i], [e], [ɛ] and [a].
Now, all you need to do is these 3 steps:
Step 1: Pronounce one of the vowels above, like the [i] in feet.
Step 2: Maintain the sound for a few seconds.
Step 3: Round your lips while maintaining the sound (Do no other adjustment than rounding your lips!).
The result is the French sound u (or [y] in phonetics).
It's that simple.
Not sure how to round your lips? Well, just say the letter o out loud and you'll surely notice how your lips get really rounded at the very end of the o.
That's exactly what I mean by rounding your lips.
If the ONLY adjustment you make in the process is rounding your lips, then it should sound like that:
And just like that, you're pronouncing the rounded vowels [y], [ø], [œ] and [ɶ].
You can apply this trick to pronounce any rounded vowel, as long as you know its unrounded counterpart.
But wait, it gets better:
You can even do this trick in reverse and doing so can yield useful results.
Off the top of my head, there's one vowel that you can learn to articulate with this: the [ɯ] vowel that's found in Japanese.
To do it, just maintain the [u] sound as in food for a few seconds and unround your lips.
And you've mastered the [ɯ] sound in literally 5 seconds.
The Backness Awareness Technique
This last technique for pronouncing vowels is very similar to the Height Awareness Technique. And because of the similarities, I'll keep it short.
Basically, the only difference is that you focus on backness instead of openness.
After you've had a feel for what vowel backness is, you'll be able to use the Vowel Extrapolation Technique to articulate any vowel on the chart.
Below are three pairs of words and next to each pair, I put the transcription of the vowel sound each word has, respectively.
Again, I'll invite you to read only the vowel sound of each word below (the underlined letters), one pair at a time:
IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT [y] AND [a]: Don't forget to round your lips for the word feet like I taught you and to only pronounce the [a] sound in ice.
Notice that as you go from one vowel sound to the next inside a pair, it feels like the tongue shifts from the front to the back and vice-versa:
The Vowel Extrapolation Technique I showed you earlier can now be used to discover how to pronounce ANY central vowel on the chart, as long as you know its front and back counterparts.
For example, if you've read the whole page up to this point, you have the necessary tools to learn how to pronounce the central vowels [ʉ] and [ɜ], which are found in several dialects of English according to Wikipedia.
Although it's not as easy to learn how to pronounce central vowels this way (at least, that's the case for me), it is still very doable.
So, Which Vowels Should You Learn to Articulate Correctly?
You're now almost ready to learn how to pronounce ONLY the vowels of interest to you.
There's one last thing you have to do, though:
To build a basic set of vowels (with the ones from the languages you know).
Why should you do this?
Because you need to know at least a few vowels on the chart in order to be able to use the Vowel Extrapolation Technique.
But here’s the best news:
The process required to build your base of vowels is pretty much the same as the process to find which vowels you should learn to articulate correctly.
So, we'll be hitting two birds with one stone here.
Also, it takes only a few minutes to do.
Here's the step-by-step process:
Step 1: Go to this vowel chart.
Step 2: Touch a vowel on the chart and you'll get a page with a list of words containing that vowel.
Step 3: Look for a word in English or in your native language if it's not English.
Step 4: If you find a word, take note of it and write it next to the vowel in question, as a reminder. If you don't find one, proceed to Step 5, regardless.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 1 to 4 for each vowel on the chart.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This procedure cannot be done with all languages. But you should be safe with the major languages of the world.
Once you've done the procedure, you'll then be able to associate each sound you already know with a character on the vowel chart. This means that you'll have your basic set of vowels.
Now, repeat the procedure again, but that time, find transcriptions in the language in which you don't want to have an accent anymore.
This will give you a second set of vowels.
After you've done that, look at the vowels that are not in your basic set of vowels and use the Vowel Extrapolation Technique to find out how to pronounce them.
And after you've done this, you'll be able to finally correctly articulate these vowels and be a step closer to reducing your accent.
Other Vowels - How to Pronounce Them
Up to this point, I've neglected to talk about the other vowels that exist in languages because I hadn't yet introduced the other symbols, which I will do at the end.
But for now, know that each vowel on the chart can potentially have one or more symbols around it, which indicates that it has an extra characteristic.
At the end, I'll briefly introduce these other symbols so that you can articulate any vowel that exist.
Now it's time I show you how to articulate consonants correctly.
Pronouncing Consonants Correctly - The Basics
Now, it's time to look at the consonants.
Below is my own representation of the current consonant chart, or more precisely, the pulmonic consonant chart (where your lungs are involved).
It does not list all the consonants; I left out the co-articulated consonants and the non-pulmonic consonants which I may add at a later time.
However, it lists nearly all the pulmonic consonants. If there's anything that's missing or inaccurate, please let me know.
Here is the chart:
How can you actually use this chart to get rid of your accent?
You'll achieve this by first making a list of all the consonants present in your language of interest. This can be done by looking at accurate phonetic transcriptions.
In these transcriptions, you'll see which consonants you actually need to learn how to pronounce.
Then, you'll look at the chart, find the consonant you want to learn and from the information that's on the chart, you'll have a pretty good idea how to articulate it.
But before you can do this, you'll have to understand the three concepts according to which consonants are classified on this chart, which is what I'm about to show you.
So, let's dive right in...
The Process of Learning How to Articulate Consonants
Most, if not all, consonants are characterized by these three things: their voice, their manner of articulation and their place of articulation.
In order to learn how to pronounce consonants, we'll first learn about these three concepts.
The first one, voice, is simply whether the vocal cords are used or not for the production of a consonant.
The second one, the manner of articulation, tells you about the way consonants are produced; it tells you what kind of movement you need to do with your vocal apparatus (lips, tongue, vocal cords, etc.). Different movements will lead to letting air out in various different ways.
The third one, the place of articulation, is no less important. It informs you on which parts of your vocal apparatus to use and where to place these parts. The tongue is very important, so we will look at its placement. However, the lips and throat are equally important for certain consonants, so we will look at these as well.
Let's start with voice.
Voiced and Voiceless Consonants
I would like to draw your attention to the pairs of consonants in each rectangle of the chart.
These are pairs like [s] and [z], [f] and [v], [θ] and [ð], etc.
The consonants in each pair essentially represent the same consonant sound, except for one crucial difference; the consonant on the left is voiceless, meaning that the vocal cords are not used, and the one on the right is voiced, meaning that the vocal cords are used.
Now, read out loud the pairs of words below, but do not read them completely; maintain the airflow on the letters in color in each word for a while.
You should hear the contrast between the two different sounds within a pair:
As you can hear, if you pronounce the F of fast for a second and then pronounce the V of vast for a second, you will notice that while the vocal cords are not used for F, they are used for V. Otherwise, they would be exactly the same sound.
Now, let's look at the place and manner of articulation.
Place and Manner of Articulation
As you can see on the chart, consonants are classified according to their place and manner of articulation:
What we're going to do now is to learn just enough about each manner and place of articulation so that you can use this information to teach yourself how to pronounce any consonant on the chart, so that you can speak without an accent.
Here are the sections on manner and place of articulation that you should read before moving any further:
When you're done reading these two, we'll have a quick word about intonation and then move on to the other symbols of the IPA.
Intonation, as I said at the beginning, is EXTREMELY important for getting rid of an accent.
When speaking a foreign language, we have a tendency of using the intonation that we would use in our native language, thus giving ourselves away.
Here's a good example of what I mean:
Although it's not just her intonation that sounds French, pay close attention to it and you'll notice that it's not the same one used in English.
Indeed, it's an intonation that speakers of European French use when speaking their own language.
How to Speak With the Proper Intonation
Earlier I suggested that mimicking didn't come easy for everyone (except perhaps for our friend, the parrot).
But we're going to make an exception for intonation and tones.
When dealing with them, there's not really any technique that you can use other than to simply mimic them.
And that's not difficult because you just have to use your vocal cords.
The BIGGEST challenge, however, is to use the proper intonation consistently.
Follow this tip and this should take care of any intonation problem that you may have:
When listening to a native speaker of your language of interest, pay attention to what intonation is used in which circumstance. Mimic it whenever you practice.
Other Symbols of the IPA - Finalizing the Accent Reduction
Finally, we'll get a basic overview of the other symbols of the IPA.
A rather important symbol that is overly used in phonetic transcriptions is [ˈ], which indicates primary stress.
There is also secondary stress indicated by a [ˌ].
These symbols are written to the left of the syllable that is stressed, to indicate it as such.
Here's an example of stress in the phonetic transcription of the word array, where the stress falls on the second syllable rray :
A colon, [ː], is used to indicate that a vowel is long.
It is added to the right of the vowel like in the word feel where the [i] sound is long:
Tones are reputedly difficult to master if your native language is not a tonal language. However, it's very important to know how to read/write them if you're learning a language with tones such as Mandarin and Thai.
You can see the different tones of the IPA in the picture with the other symbols I showed you earlier.
The simplest way (in my opinion) to indicate a tone is to put the symbol above the phonetic character.
Alternatively, you can indicate it by writing the appropriate symbol to the right of the syllable that the tone affects.
Here's an example of two possible transcriptions representing the same word in Vietnamese:
Audio clip of the word áo dài in the Saigon dialect:
Finally, diacritics are small symbols (some are letters) which are used to attribute a distinct characteristic to a phonetic sound.
They can be written in many possible places around a phonetic character, as you might have noticed throughout this page.
As you encounter them in phonetic transcriptions, I suggest you go back to the IPA sheet to find out what they mean. This way, you'll have an idea of how to pronounce the character that's affected by the diacritic.
This is what concludes this page on accent reduction.
It may seem like a lot to take in, but if you've followed closely up to this point, you have the tools necessary to speak any language or dialect without an accent.
You can come back to this page whenever you need help with this.
Also, you can always ask me questions about accent reduction, which I will try to answer to the best of my capability.