Many of my clients, in their first few sessions say to me, ‘I don’t have a good ear for accents’, ‘I can’t hear differences in pronunciation’ or ‘I can’t feel what’s happening in my mouth’. They seem so worried that somehow the learning of a new accent or changing the pronunciation of words is something that only a select few can achieve - those who have a ‘good ear’ and can accurately feel what is happening in their mouth.
There is certainly a lot of research out there about this phenomena and the relationship between accent acquisition and mimicry or early language learning or music. It is certainly true that some people have a natural facility for accents and seem to be able to hear and mimic them with relative ease. And some people really struggle.
These clients also seem curious about actors and how they seem to modify their pronunciation for certain parts. I work with a lot of actors who are able to change their speech easily but I also work with many who really struggle, and they express exactly the same fears about not have a good ear or ability to feel what’s happening in their mouth.
What I know to be true from my experiences of working with the many hundreds of people that I worked with over the last 10 years is that observation, physical awareness and imitation are the fundamental skills needed to work on speech and pronunciation, and thankfully they are innate. It is these skills that we use from 0-4 years old to learn to walk and talk and play, and some of us continue to rely on certain ways of learning into adulthood. And perhaps those of us who continue to rely on observation, physical awareness and imitation as ways of learning are more able to tune into pronunciation and accent.
The sad thing is that we tend to buy into the mantra that one only tends to learn in one particular way. It's true that we have particular learning styles, but we then tend to neglect other ways that aren't quite so developed. In England a child might be told that they are a kinaesthetic learner or and auditory learner or a visual learner, and it sticks as a sort of narrative that we tell ourselves, which might make us fear certain subjects or activities. So part of my coaching often involves encouraging and persuading people that they DO have the innate resources to change their speech and pronunciation, but these skills just need waking up and rehabilitating. This can take time, a lot of repetition and encouragement, but also relies on the learner being willing to learn a new narrative about themselves, a new, more positive litany - ‘I CAN learn a new pronunciation’, ‘I CAN hear differences in pronunciation’ and ‘I CAN feel what’s happening in my mouth’. So when I get those fearful, doubting statements from my clients, like ‘I don’t have a good ear for accents’ I often say ‘at the moment’.
So I wonder if it’s possible for you to change your negative self-talk and allow in the fact that the learning skills that you need to change your speech or pronunciation are inborn and need some time to be nourished?
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