Areas to work on for Accent Improvement

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Elocution/ Accent Reduction By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Elocution/ Accent Reduction
Last updated: 10/04/2016
Tags: accent method, accent reduction, accent softening, elocution, phonetics

Accent Improvement - areas to work on

First of all, I prefer to refer to “accent improvement”, rather than “accent reduction, neutralising or softening” – it seems more positive. It is impossible not to have an accent; we just often think that people have an accent if they don’t speak in the same way as us!  You can’t have no accent!

The accent that many learners of English aspire to is sometimes called Received Pronunciation (RP), Oxford English, BBC English or Standard English. This is the pronunciation that is given in dictionaries and learning material and it is probably the most popular and widely-understood. Increasingly English is used internationally as a language of wider communication. For example, one of my clients is a German engineer working on a contract for a Swedish company but sourcing from Chinese suppliers. How do they communicate? In English, even though it is not the first language for any of them! I could give lots of similar examples from my own students. A Standard English accent is the easiest for them all to understand.

I don’t have a standard programme for clients who want to improve their accent – I assess their needs and determine the specific areas where work is required. Some of these areas can be fairly predictable, depending on the person’s first language, but I will assess clients individually and devise a programme according to their needs. I usually target first the features which can cause most misunderstandings when they speak. Depending on the client’s needs, I work on the following areas (normally all of them need work, but some need more work than others):

Individual sounds (phonemes)

Many languages do not distinguish between two similar sounds, so we need to train students to hear the difference and then learn to put their mouths in the correct position.

For example:

               fit /fɪt/                 feet /fi:t/                                           soot /sʊt/            suit /su:t/

 (You may have learnt that these are “short” and “long” vowels – that is not totally accurate; they are different vowels!)

“Difficult” sounds:

I often have to teach students to pronounce “th” /θ/ or /ð/, as this sound doesn’t exist in their languages. It’s not hard to teach them to do it but it’s harder for them to change the habits of many years in their everyday speech!

Silent letters

               car /ka:/              talk /tɔ:k/            listen /ˈlɪsən/                     knowledge /ˈnɒlɪʤ/

You will have noticed that I use the established IPA phonemic symbols to show pronunciation. I strongly encourage students to learn them – it doesn’t take long and makes pronunciation much clearer and more logical. A great resource is the online interactive chart at There is also an app you can download.


Word stress

If you stress the wrong syllable, it can make you very hard to understand. It can also change the sense of the word.

e.g.        COLLeague, not coLLEAGUE

               EXport (noun)                    exPORT (verb)


Sentence stress / intonation

We stress the important words in phrases, often to make a contrast.

               Not THAT one, the OTHer one!

               What do you want to do this evening?

Stressing/emphasising any one of the underlined words changes the meaning slightly.


Intonation – the “melody” of English.

“You want to improve your English, don’t you?” Rising intonation indicates a genuine question.

“You want to improve your English, don’t you?” Falling intonation asks for confirmation and expects a positive answer.

Using the correct words with the wrong intonation can cause as much misunderstanding as using the wrong words!


Connected speech

Strong/weak forms

Many words, especially grammatical words, have a “strong” form (when we say the word on its own, or emphasise it). These are the forms we usually learn. But in normal speech we often reduce the words if they are not so important as to need emphasising, so we use the “weak” form. For example:

               “to” /tu:/ but weak form /tə/: “I’m going to bed” /..... tə bed/

We do this A LOT more than you might think!

Contraction, Elision, Linking etc.

This needs an article (or a book!) of its own but I will deal with these features if appropriate to a client’s needs.

Philip Lowe Business English Teacher (Chelmsford)

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