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Dr Duncan Markham answers common questions...
Understanding the difference
Is there a difference between accent correction, reduction or modification?
No. Accent reduction is the common term used to describe training which changes someone’s accent to be less different from that of the local community. Some people dislike this term as they feel it implies that an accent is bad. The “reduction” idea is best thought of as being the “reduction of difference” between your accent and the listener’s accent. Accent modification is an increasingly common term which is felt to be less judgemental, and accent neutralisation is another term that is popular with some accent coaches.
Is this speech therapy?
No. Speech therapists are not trained to provide accent modification, despite what they often claim. They certainly have nothing approaching “expertise” in this area. (People often turn to speech therapists for help because they aren’t sure who can actually help, so the speech therapists branch out into accent modification work because they want to expand their income sources.) A degree in speech pathology involves basic training over one to three years to correct defects resulting from developmental, neurological, or psychological problems, and in fact most speech therapists have never even learnt how to solve those problems during their studies (they learn afterwards, on the job). An accent is not a defect to be corrected, and does not need “diagnosis” and “treatment”! The only speech therapists I have ever met with even moderate knowledge of phonetic and phonological systems in languages, the acoustics of speech, language structures, cultural behaviours and the subtleties of accents and pronunciation have been a few university-level researchers.
What techniques or methods are used?
Questions of “technique” or “method” often come from the world of acting and performance, or are used by people who need to “bling up” their product to make it look super-special… These terms often describe little more than hot air. A good teacher, trainer, or coach should be able to help their clients without locking themselves into an arbitrary conceptual framework (or a meaningless marketing label). The “Ear & Speak Method” is just excellent knowledge, careful analysis and insight, and good teaching. We’ve studied scores of language learners, taught over a thousand university students, and trained hundreds of clients. Read about our experience and expertise.
Why do so many training providers have similar tips and FAQs?
Very simply, because they copy what other people have written. In the 16 years that Ear & Speak has existed, probably 90% of competitors in Melbourne (and many elsewhere in Australia) have shamelessly copied ideas, sentences or entire paragraphs on the Ear & Speak site to their own websites. I’m not exaggerating. It’s rude. It’s frustrating. And it shows what you can expect of their services. Oh, and it’s illegal (a tiny little concept called “copyright”).
Do you speak many languages?
I speak English, German and Swedish fluently. I also speak a little French, Danish, Spanish, European Portuguese and Italian. I can pronounce with reasonable accuracy Japanese, Mandarin, Norwegian, Finnish, Russian, Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesia, Icelandic, Greek, Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch and Afrikaans, and have knowledge of the pronunciation patterns of many languages including Korean, Cantonese, Hokkien, Tagalog, Hindi/Urdu, Singhalese, Malayalam, Farsi, Arabic, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Hebrew, Turkish, Vietnamese and a few more. See my webpage about how popular foreign names and words should be pronounced.
Why aren't there helpful tips on your website to tell me how to change my accent?
Actually, there is a page about how to help yourself, but we don‘t have “tips” pages, because they are a marketing gimmick, mainly aimed at getting Google hits. Perhaps you’ve seen lots of other providers who have “how to lose my Chinese accent” pages and that sort of thing. There are so many of these, copied from one site to another, repeating the same things. There are also lots of YouTube videos, repeating the same things. If those tips are so obvious and simple, then almost no-one would have an accent! Ear & Speak is focused on serious, face-to-face training and results.
Where is the Ear & Speak office?
Level 30, 35 Collins Street, Melbourne. We also do training on-site for some companies if our schedule is flexible. Note that all appointments must be made by phone or email. See the practical info page for a map and more details.
Do you offer group training?
In most cases, no. It’s not effective, except for beginners or for solving very simple problems, and it doesn’t provide enough guidance and feedback. We do occasionally provide group training about basic principles of good communication, and some tailored courses for businesses, covering a range of skills.
What are your hours and fees?
We offer appointments on weekdays except Wednesday, and on Saturdays. Please see the practical info page for exact hours and fees.
Do you see clients outside Melbourne?
Ear & Speak offers a special online accent reduction program, or we can help some clients face-to-face who can’t attend classes in Melbourne, but only if there is enough local demand or if a client is willing to cover all associated costs.
How long do I need to attend training for?
Regardless of age or goals, most clients attend training for between about eight and 20 sessions. Some clients with just a few very specific issues to address might attend fewer appointments. Some clients with many difficult issues to address might have training for more than 20 sessions. Every client has different needs, goals and abilities.
How can I pay for appointments?
Individual clients can pay on the day or in advance, by credit/debit card issued in Australia, by bank transfer, or in cash. New clients are required to prepay their first appointment, but this is still mostly refundable if you need to cancel with good notice. All other appointments can be paid on the day or in advance.
Do you offer a video course?
No. A course which uses pre-recorded training materials as the main form of teaching is not serving the needs of most clients needing accent reduction. We do have audio and video materials to support our clients when they are practising at home. We have also developed a special, narrowly focused online accent reduction course for self-guided learning, because we do still want to help people who can’t come to face-to-face training.
Do you offer an online course via Skype?
No. We do sometimes continue to work with clients online after they move interstate or overseas and can’t come to face-to-face appointments anymore, but they usually agree that face-to-face is much better. This is because of the fine detail that can be seen and heard live, but is easily lost over video. We have also developed a special, narrowly focused online accent reduction course for self-guided learning, because we do still want to help people who can’t come to face-to-face training.
I speak really ocker Australian English. Do I need elocution lessons?
Probably not. It depends on why you’re concerned, doesn’t it 🙂 . It’s entirely possible to be very, very successful in Australia no matter what type of Australian English you speak. Most of the Prime Ministers of Australia in the last 40 years have sounded either typically Australian (“general Australian English”, in linguistic terms) or very Australian (“broad”), with the exception of Malcolm Turnbull and Malcolm Fraser (1975-1983) (but no, changing your name to Malcolm isn’t the path to speaking like you have education and privilege). The two politicians most criticised for their Australian English have been, notably, women. Julia Gillard was picked on mercilessly, even though her speech was no more strongly Australian than people like Tony Abbott or John Howard… but she was a woman, and so the prejudice was higher (unfair and too often the case).
Pauline Hanson, despite her repugnant and ignorant opinions, is also a victim of linguistic prejudice towards women who speak with a strong Australian accent (when people pick on her accent, they’re actually reacting to her unusual vocal sound and poor ability to express ideas). So… If your Australian English is actually affecting your life in some way, then perhaps elocution lessons can help (note that changing your native accent is often uncomfortable and difficult). In many cases, if only one or two people are reacting negatively to your speech, tell them to concentrate on your message or [censored 😉 ].
I speak like a “wog”. Do I need elocution lessons?
First of all, my apologies if you’re offended by the inclusion of this question here. It is, however, exactly exactly what some people ask when they call me for advice. Note that if you aren’t familiar with Australia, you might not know that “wog” in Australia nowadays refers to Australians with southern European and Middle Eastern heritage. It is humorous for some people and offensive for some others. In answer to the question, I would say the same thing as for the question above about Australian English: If your flavour of English is actually affecting your life in some way, then perhaps elocution lessons can help. In many cases, if only one or two people are reacting negatively to your speech, tell them to concentrate on your message or go back to watching Skippy 😉 .
However, although negativity about “wog English” is usually just a question of social prejudice, there are some cases where the presence of another language in your life (even just in the childhood home) might have affected the rhythm of your speech (which could then affect clarity) or the pronunciation of some words (which might make people think you’re less educated). If you’re unsure, just contact us for a thoughtful discussion of whether training might be useful for you.
My child has an accent. Can you help?
For the most part, children should be allowed the freedom to develop how they speak without unnecessary intervention. Children’s speech patterns change over time depending on their parental and social environment. In most cases an early-arrival bilingual child will speak like their friends by their early teenage years. In rare cases an early-arrival bilingual child might still have an obvious accent into their teens. A similar situation can occasionally exist for children born in Australia with parents who don’t speak English at home. It isn’t desirable to intervene in a child’s development unless the situation is causing the child problems (e.g being bullied, or having trouble being understood). Unnecessary training can affect self-confidence/esteem and in the end do more damage than good.
Nonetheless, there might be unusual situations where a child has a strong accent after many years in Australia, which could indicate broader learning problems or social issues that need to be addressed. Parents can minimise the risk that their child’s English development is below average or different from their peers by making sure that at least one parent speaks to the child in English all the time. (The second parent could continue speaking their other language in order to promote good bilingualism.) If you’re unsure, just contact us for a thoughtful discussion of whether training might be useful for you.
Am I too old to change my accent?
It depends on the individual. As you get older your habits usually become more fixed. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to change, but it can require more time and focus in order to achieve the changes we work on in training. Every client can achieve at least some progress toward their goals.
Can you help me just fix a few words that have been bugging me?
Sure, we can work on those. Just keep in mind that when you start learning how to fix those “few words”, you might realise that there are other problems too, because often “difficult” words share their characteristics with other words you might not have thought about yet.
If I have accent training, are you going to make me sound Australian?
Please see our answer to this on our Australian English dialect page. Accent training doesn’t require you to sound exactly like any particular dialect, but the clarity of your speech will always depend on how big the difference is between your accent and the accent of the person listening to you. So, most clients will be given advice about how to speak in a way that works well enough for their audience, and if a client actually wants to sound local, then training will focus on authentic local sounds.
How long does it take to change the way you speak?
Anywhere from a few months to a lifetime. It depends on the individual. Some people learn incredibly quickly, while others need hours of assistance and a lot of practice at home. Personality, previous languages, age… all of these play a role. Fine-tuning pronunciation or speech habits is of course quicker than addressing more serious problems in communication skills or accent modification.
Are there accent reduction training materials for sale?
Only the best learners can work effectively from videos and books when it comes to pronunciation. And software is almost entirely useless for advanced learners. I could probably earn lots of money selling these things, but I wouldn’t be helping you properly. Most people need someone, usually a trained expert, to really help them achieve significant accent or communication goals. For this reason, Ear & Speak doesn’t sell accent training materials, though we are constantly working to perfect the materials that we use with our clients.
Will I need to do homework?
Absolutely. Changing habits requires frequent, repetitive practice. This practice has to take place both by yourself, and then in normal speech when talking to other people. A lot of the practice is not about studying a piece of paper, but about learning to say things in the new way.
What is training like?
Although our job is to teach quite difficult things, we try to keep the atmosphere informal and warm. Nonetheless, hard work and concentration are required, both in the sessions and in practice at home and in life. Sometimes we’ll work on one thing for a whole hour, but often we’ll be mixing the issues and activities in order to keep you on your toes and maximise the effectiveness of training. There’s a lot of conversation sometimes, because you need to be able to make changes in normal communication, and luckily for our clients, we can engage you in conversation about almost anything. We get very good feedback from clients about improving their skills in this area.