“Papa,” I said, “you must have lice.” It was still early afternoon in this Nordic country, but the day had already turned to dusk. My father-in-law, who had been squinting to read his newspaper in the diminishing light, took off his glasses, looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t think so.”
What I had meant to say in my beginner’s Norwegian was Papa, you must have light, but I hadn’t recognized the difference between two very similar vowel sounds and, although forgiven, produced the wrong one. In the middle of my embarrassment I learned a valuable lesson about pronunciation: that the smallest sound can completely change the meaning of a word and, inadvertently, your intent.
Faced with an unfamiliar alphabet, I mispronounced many words, and put inflection and emphasis in places they didn’t belong. It took me a while to realize that no, I didn’t suffer from a lack of intelligence, even though I felt anything but intelligent. The problem was that I was creating completely new sounds with a speech system — a system comprised of my mouth, lips, and tongue — that had only ever produced English sounds. I had to learn how to form the sounds as they were pronounced in the new language, which meant practicing them in isolation and then inside words and sentences, over and over again. In that way, I trained my speech muscles to pronounce the sounds of the new language. It took time and effort, but eventually I was able to soften the sounds I mispronounced, which brought me closer to the actual sounds of Norwegian. Although I still had an accent, my speech was understood and, most important to me, accepted.
For many English language learners, conquering grammar and sentence structure is not enough. Producing speech closer to an American accent becomes a personal or professional goal, but the question becomes, how do I do this? There are several answers to that, depending on how important it is to the learner to produce language that sounds closer to American English. Mimicking, repeating what’s heard, is a good start. Watching TV or listening to the radio and practicing those speech sounds helps, especially because what’s being spoken is everyday English. Asking friends and colleagues to help you pronounce sounds correctly can help too. Given permission, they may be happy to offer a corrected version of a sound you have mispronounced, and you can continue to practice with them. Finally, there are accent professionals who can help you work on the sounds that are most difficult to produce and retraining your speech hardware — again, your mouth, lips and tongue — to create those sounds.
Keep in mind that no matter which method you choose, developing an ear for the correct pronunciation of American English speech sounds, and then retraining yourself to produce them, takes time. Clear communication is the goal in every situation. Decide how important accent is to your self-esteem, personal life, or career, and then go for it!
Say it with confidence,