Tag Archives: english accent


English spelling: don’t let your pronunciation go awry (or is that ‘aw-ree’)?

How do you pronounce ‘awry’?

Those who’ve worked with me before will know that I talk a lot about spelling.

I remember as a student using the word ‘awry’ (meaning something that’s gone wrong or askew) when speaking about something and pronouncing it ‘aw-ree’.
Then one of my friends gently remarked, ‘do you mean ‘uh-RYE’?
My friend didn’t actually laugh at me, but it was still quite embarrassing. I obviously wasn’t as well-educated as I thought!
I knew what ‘awry’ meant, but then I’d never heard it out loud: I’d only ever seen it written down. And I followed the rule that ‘y’ at the end of a word sounds like ‘ee’.

Written English vs. spoken English

Whether or not English is your first language, like most of the people I work with you’re probably totally at ease with writing English.
The problem is, writing English and speaking English are very different things. And people who are familiar with written English, and comfortable using it, often have a difficult time expressing themselves in speech as readily as they can in writing.
I think there are two reasons for this:

1. English spelling doesn’t match English pronunciation

foreign signage in English full of spelling mistakes
English spelling: read this sign out loud, it’s pronounced the way it’s written!
I don’t need to tell you that English spelling can be a bit tricksy. Are there two c’s in ‘accommodation’? Is it ‘night’ or ‘nite’? And when you wrote that embarrassing email to your boss about how you ‘ red the report and their are no problems with it’, when of course you meant ‘read the report and there are no problems with it’, why didn’t the stupid spellcheck pick it up?
That last one is a real example: the client who shared that with me was mortified at having his mistakes corrected by colleagues! ’It sounds right when you read it out loud’, he said.
He’s correct, of course: ‘red’ sounds the same as ‘read’.  But English spelling is a very unreliable guide to how pronounce words.

2. Writing is all about WHAT you say: speaking is about HOW you say it, too    

Writing well is about structuring your statements coherently, getting the right overall tone, and choosing the right words. If you get all of that right, correct spelling is the icing on the cake: it’s a simple matter of proofreading (or running spellcheck!)
Speaking, on the other hand, is not just about WHAT you say but HOW you say it.
Are you articulating clearly? Do the words sound the way your listeners are expecting them to sound? Basically, are they going to fully understand what you’re saying?

‘Walk’ or ‘work’?

A statement you make in writing, all spelt correctly, could be completely clear: but if you say the same thing out loud, would it be properly understood?
For example: I worked with a doctor who used to often ask his patients:
“What kind of work do you do?”
It’s a simple question. But they often used to misunderstand him, because with his West African accent, they thought he was asking them about the way they walk!
It became clear that he was used to seeing a letter ‘o’ in a word and pronouncing it short, like the ‘o’ in ‘hot’. So ‘work’ sounded like ‘wok’ – which sounds a bit like ‘walk’, when it should rhyme with ‘jerk’ and ‘perk’.
But it’s not obvious that a word spelt ‘-ork’ should be pronounced ‘-erk’, is it?

Making sense of spelling

In my coaching sessions, we work with SOUNDS first and foremost. Then we look at all the different ways there are to spell a sound, so that you learn to associate the sound you’re making with the common everyday words you’re familiar with in writing.
Sometimes it means learning to break that very strong mental link we all develop between letters of the alphabet and the way your brain has trained itself to pronounce them.
As I always tell the people I work with: we have to get back to thinking of language as a collection of sounds, and words and phrases as strings of sounds, rather than arrangements of letters.
Think of it this way: there are far fewer sounds in standard English than there are ways to spell those sounds.
The ‘oo’ sound in ‘food’, for instance: you can spell it ‘ue’ as in ‘blue’, ‘iew’ as in ‘view’, ‘o’ as in ‘do’… there are many more! So speaking clearly is actually EASIER than writing clearly!
Except with words like ‘awry’…

Results that last: 5 tips for practising your speech skills

Finding time to practice regularly is my clients’ single biggest difficulty: it’s the main obstacle in the way of their progress. So when you’re a busy person, spending most of your time and energy on the day-to-day demands of your career, your family and (if you’re lucky) your social life, how do you make sure there’s some leftover to invest in your speech skills?
Here are five tips for anyone who wants to change the way they speak, to get an idea of what it willl actually take. If you’re a past or present client, some of these will be familiar: are you still managing to keep them up?

1. Don’t make it all work and no play

If you need to fine-tune sounds, be disciplined: practice your vowels and consonants regularly, repeating sounds until they become second nature. It’s repetitive, but it’s got to be done.
However, when you come to practice the other techniques we work on – intonation, pace, expression – you need to have a totally differently approach. Use your intuition. Try things out. Dare to do things with your voice you wouldn’t normally do. It should feel less like working out, and more like doing a zumba class or having a kickabout in the park.
Muck around with your voice, and you’ll soon get a feel for how you can use it to really communicate, it a way that is authentically you.

2. Practice little and often

This isn’t the sort of work you can get done by putting in the overtime (even if you had the time to do two or three hours in a day!) One sound a day, for five to ten minutes, is plenty: the most important thing is that you do it regularly, so that the new sounds, the new ideas about speaking, become as much a part of your everyday life as your current speech patterns.
Where and when to practice? Ok, that’s tricky, because unless you don’t mind annoying people, you can’t really run through your vowel sounds on a rush hour tube.
Try working your practice into your morning routine in the bathroom: you have a) a bit of privacy, and b) a mirror. Getting ready to shave or do your skincare routine is a great moment to massage and loosen your articulators – the jaw, the throat, the lips and tongue. No-one will hear you going over your sounds in the shower. Alternatively, some clients say they work best in the car on the way to work. Wherever you do it, make sure you do it most days – ideally, every day.

3. If you can’t speak, listen

If you are in situations where you can’t really practice out loud (like on public transport) use the time to listen: stick your headphones in and listen to the recordings we’ve made of your key sounds, or, if you’re working more on being clear and confident, download a Radio 4 podcast, an audiobook – anything featuring skilled communicators speaking with your target sound.
Don’t just listen to what they say, but how they say it – how they use emphasis, where and when they pause, whether their diction is clear. Or, if you’ve got no audio to plug into, do a bit of eavesdropping! Whatever the accent, you can listen to and analyse the speech patterns of your fellow passengers, your colleagues, whoever’s around. The better tuned your ears are to how others speak, the more clearly you’ll start to understand how to use your own voice, to speak consciously and deliberately to achieve your particular goals.

4. Train hard – then forget about it

When you’re practising, you need to be 100% focused on accurately making your target sound. Then when you go out to work, or you’re with your family and friends, don’t give it another thought.
Focus on what you’re talking about, what they’re talking about, not on whether you hit all the t’s perfectly in that last word. If you start trying to use new sounds in your everyday speech straightaway, you’ll feel weird and self-conscious: family or close friends may notice, and I bet they’ll tease you! Which – let’s be honest – means you’re less likely to persevere with it. Get on with your life, do your practice and gradually, organically, your habits will change and your day-to-day speech will improve without you have to force it.

5. Don’t expect instant results

Now, of course I’m one of the best speech and accent coaches in London, so after a few sessions with me you’re going to completely transform the way you speak and acquire huge confidence almost overnight. I would say that, right?
I’m not saying that (except the bit about being one of the best!) It’s not like getting a nosejob: you won’t go to bed ugly and wake up beautiful. It’s more like sensibly changing your diet; the weight doesn’t drop off immediately, but one day you notice that you can get into that skirt again. It will take at least a few weeks for you, your colleagues and your friends to start noticing any changes – trust me though, they will. But only if you practice!
For those who are short of time (if you’re only in London temporarily, for example) I do offer short courses: intensive 2-day programs where we cover very quickly what we’d usually take ten weeks to work on gradually. The same principles apply though – you will need to develop a practice routine to get lasting results. But you won’t be left to sink or swim: I’ll give you detailed recommendations about what and how to practice, so you see a lasting improvement. Contact me to find out more

Accent reduction classes: How do you tell someone?

Other people’s accents: a world of confusion

When I describe to people what I do, they always tell me about someone at work, or someone they have to speak to on the phone,  whose accent they can’t understand. (IT support departments in India is the most common one).

But of course, they’ve never said anything. They just muddle through, sometimes pretending they understand, usually asking that person to repeat her- or himself, always getting terribly embarrassed by the whole thing – and if they’re embarrassed, imagine how the person with the ‘strong’ accent is feeling!

“Sorry?” Understanding other accents

Read this blogpost for some good advice about how to cope with unfamiliar accents at work: point 1 is my favourite. If you yourself speak steadily and carefully, and make sure your own speech is crystal clear, it’s very likely that the person you’re talking to will start to do the same.

How can I put this…?

A ‘strong’ accent is a difficult subject to raise with people. It’s like telling someone they have bad breath. Even if you’re a manager or HR professional, used to giving direct and honest feedback, extra sensitivity is needed with this one.

It’s more complicated than other kinds of feedback, on areas like people skills or personal presentation. Most organisations have a culture, with particular rules and conventions, which applies to everyone; most people expect to adapt themselves to their work environment to an extent, whether it’s in the way they dress, or the vocabulary they use.

But a person’s speech is a different matter. It’s part of who they are and where they come from, so being told that that part of them isn’t acceptable, if it’s handled badly, can be taken as a major affront. It’s very hard not to take it personally: at worst, it can feel like discrimination.

Accent and office politics

I’ve also known occasions when difficulty understanding an accent – whether genuine or feigned – has been used to diminish or undermine a person. For a pretty vivid example, watch the video of Russell Brand being interviewed on US television: at points when he’s in full flow, and has  his interviewers on the back foot (watch at 4’38 and 7’32 specifically) they try to take the wind out of his sails by claiming they can’t understand his Essex vowels. Genuinely, or is it just a sly tactic?

If a strongly-accented employee or colleague feels like something similar is going on when you tell them you struggle to understand them, it can really damage the working relationship.

A solution, not a problem

So how do you tell some they need accent reduction classes? I’ve spoken to a range of employers and HR professionals about this, and to be honest,  no-one has a foolproof method for starting this conversation. (Trust me, I’m working on it!)

As with the coaching I do, it all depends on the individual, and the relationship you have. Sometimes it can be done with an informal chat; often it works when it comes as part of an otherwise glowing appraisal or performance review (‘you’re doing fantastic work, we’re really pleased, the only area we really need to work on is communication skills…’)

It’s always more effective to talk about how accent reduction classes would benefit the individual, rather than how they would help everyone else. It’s not about making life easier for everyone else, it’s about making life easier for the accented person: enhancing her skills, her effectiveness, her confidence. ‘Imagine how much more satisfying and productive your working life would be without all that confusion, embarrassment and timewasting!’ (Or words to that effect…)

Accent-uate the positive

So if there is someone you know, a colleague or a friend, who’s frustrated at having to repeat him- or herself all the time, or who hates being asked to speak in meetings, it could be that they would love to get help, if others weren’t too polite to tell them about it. Saying something could be the biggest favour you ever do them. Just remember to emphasise the benefits for them, rather than all the benefits it might bring to you!

One tip though: if you’re in HR and you’re recommending accent reduction training to a member of staff, it always goes down better if the company is offering to pay for it :)

Click on ‘Contact Me’ above to find out more about accent reduction and confident speaking. Til next time…

Still from The Kings Speech with Colin Firth

Confident speaking and the ‘correct’ way to speak English

Which is more important, confident speaking or accurate speaking – getting the accent ‘right’?
I gave a talk on this topic earlier this month to an audience of Chinese and British-born Chinese (BBC) professionals in London.

‘if I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

When it comes to confident speaking, especially if English isn’t your first language, some people see accent as a shortcut: ‘If I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

It doesn’t really work like that.
Correct pronunciation is important for making yourself understood, of course.
But the thing is, as long as the speaker is communicating effectively, most listeners can cope with a bit of an accent. What people find difficult to listen to is someone who doesn’t sound confident.

Someone who mumbles, or speaks too quickly, or hesitates a lot. And a flawless English accent won’t cure you of any of that.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘getting the accent right’… which accent?

What is the correct way to speak English anyway?

Confident speaking for non-native English speakers
Does it matter if non-native English speakers don’t master ‘the accent’?

There’s still an assumption that there is a ‘correct’ accent, a sort of official form of English. You know the sound I mean? It’s not exactly ‘posh’: it’s not the Queen’s English, but it tends to be spoken by middle- or upper-middle class people in the south of England. Linguists call in Received Pronuncation or RP. It’s the kind of accent you hear from most BBC newsreaders.
As for whether that’s the correct way to speak, it’s interesting to look at the question in the context of English as a world language.
Heather Hansen, a Singapore-based voice and speech coach, uses some cold hard figures to get a sense of perspective:·

Worldwide number of native English speakers:         400million

Number of non-native English speakers:                    1.4billion

English speakers in the UK:                                               57million

Native speakers of RP or standard English:                1 million

RP English is native to a tiny fraction of English speakers – even within England itself! Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the English spoken in the world at any given moment sounds like this – and yet all those other billions of English speakers across the globe, despite having the ‘wrong’ accent, manage to get by somehow!
When you look at it like this, it doesn’t make sense to think of RP, or BBC English, as ‘correct’ English.

As long as English is clear, consider it correct.

This was an especially relevant issue for a lot of the audience at this event: all fluent English speakers, if not bilingual, although most of them – whether Chinese-born or British-born –  that I met spoke with a Chinese or Asian-sounding accent. Some of them talked about wanting to ‘improve’ or ‘speak with a better accent’.
Should they strive to sound more English? Hmm. There are around 300 million people in China alone who are learning English – five times the population of the UK (thanks again, Heather). Maybe it’s us Brits who should be learning a Chinese accent!
Instead of a crash course in how to do an English accent (see a previous post if that’s what you’re after) I took them through the first steps of my Effective Speaking program – simple techniques for for confident speaking, including how to use vocal tone, rhythm, pace and pitch to make your speech easier to listen to.
These techniques inspire confidence because they’re practical: if you understand HOW to speak effectively, you feel more in control of how you communicate, and that confidence will spread to your listeners. They’ll be more inclined to listen to someone who sounds confident in what she’s saying, and do you know what’s interesting?
The more confidently you speak, the less we hear the accent. The less trouble we have understanding you.

So I would say to anyone wondering about whether they need to get the English accent ‘right’ – what do you want? Do you want to sound English? Or do you want to really communicate?
I can help you to do either. But however you choose to sound, make sure you speak with confidence.
Contact me to find out more. Thanks for reading!

Speak with a ‘proper’ British accent – in 3 minutes!

How to speak with a ‘proper’ British accent – in 3 minutes!

No, I haven’t truncated my coaching into a 3-minute express course – of course there’s so much more to it than that. But Prof David Ley from the University of Alberta has some short, snappy, and quite entertaining tips about how to get the right feel for an educated neutral British English accent. I’m not sure if the end result is anything like how 98% of speakers with this accent actually sound, but his process is pretty bang-on!

Politely disregard the hammy rep-theatre versions of Irish, Southern States and Scottish that he does at the end – don’t call us, we’ll call you, professor :)


Speaking proper: social mobility and ‘accentism’

I mentioned this last week in a post about accents in urban music so I thought I’d repost the full piece. Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!

New research from Manchester University has found that many people feel unfairly judged because of how they speak, in a manner similar to racism. Some of those surveyed for the research didn’t mind changing their accent in order to get on in the world, whereas others said they felt pressure to speak differently, leading to a sense of leading a sort of double life: speaking ‘properly’ at work and naturally at home.

Suzanne Moore also wrote a very interesting and quite bold piece in the Guardian a few weeks ago, about how other research has found that a majority of British people believe a good grasp of English is essentially to being British’. She makes the point that speaking fluent English is not simply about conforming to an idea of being British; it’s more to do with the opportunities – employement, social, cultural – available to you as a migrant if you can speak the language.

I think the same is true of accents. it’s a shame that some respondents in the Manchester survey felt like impostors when they changed their accents: I assume they don’t feel ‘fake’ when they put on a suit and tie for work, even though that’s not what they’d normally wear at home.

Just as dressing to impress can boost your confidence, being confident that you are truly being heard when you speak gives you a sense of freedom and power. It can help you feel more at home in your workplace, or among new people, in new situations.

Yes that’s right, the work I do is about building a better world, my friends. I expect to be knighted for services to social cohesion very soon.

Seriously though, I don’t believe people should lose their accents. Some people say, ‘oh I hate the such-and-such accent, it’s so annoying’, and that’s just rude: my work is absolutely not about pandering to some people’s prejudices. But if your accent is tricky for some to understand, why let it hold you back?

Do give these articles a look, if you have time – here they are again:



grime mcs and djs

Being ‘for real': accents, authenticity and urban music

I don’t usually listen to BBC Radio 1xtra for the documentaries (ok, it’s an urban music station and I’m 35 – I don’t usually listen to Radio 1xtra at all). But the other day I stumbled upon a great hour-long program called Speak Britannia, about accents and dialects and how they feature in contemporary UK hip hop music and youth culture.

It was fascinating – especially when discussing the link between accent and authenticity, or being ‘for real’.

There’s nothing more important in hip hop – being true to your roots and the people you grew up around, rather than pretending to be something you’re not.

In terms of how you ‘spit’, or express yourself verbally in your music, that means rapping or singing in your natural accent. Not an issue if you’re from east or south London (“safe, blud”), where grime and other urban music genres first emerged – those accents are the signature vocal sound of UK urban.

But what if being ‘for real’ means spitting in a Scottish, a Bristol or a Yorkshire accent? It turns out there’s a real contradiction in urban music between being authentic and having the right sound for the mainstream.

One section of the program focused on a Scottish MC who was laughed offstage at a contest for rapping in his native accent.

Getting a foot in the door with a Glasgow accent proved so difficult that he went as far as developing an alter ego, an entire fictional persona, who performed in an American accent – and was an instant success. (He later dispensed with the act after losing the will to continue faking it). It seems that urban music, like many cultures, can be deeply conservative about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Grime MCs and DJs are in a uniquely tricky position, where the sound of the vocals isn’t just about clarity but about whether you  are reppin’ the ‘real’ voice of the streets. Think of the radio DJ Tim Westwood, the vicar’s son with the infamous pseudo-rudeboy drawl. It’s a cultural issue, not just a vocal one.

This issue of authenticity comes up a lot with my clients, when I try to describe how accent reduction and speech training fit into a contemporary world where you’re constantly reminded to ‘just  be yourself’.
When I meet clients for the first time, they usually start by saying ‘I quite like my accent’. It feels dishonest to try and suppress their natural sound, because it’s part of who they are and where they’ve come from.
They’re right to feel this way. I don’t teach people how to ‘put on’ a British accent, because how are you meant to be confident and speak from the heart in your professional and personal life if you feel like a fake?
Thankfully, I can’t think of many professions where it’s still considered essential to speak with a flawless English accent (actors in Downton Abbey, perhaps?) The British have generally become more accustomed to different accents from their newsreaders, their doctors and their bank managers. Regrettably some prejudice still exists: I shared an article on social media recently about how ‘accentism’ is still prevalent in Britain. I don’t feel that individuals should be expected to pander to these prejudices, but I think it’s important to remember what I say to most clients: that a good communicator doesn’t make her listeners work too hard to understand her.
I always reassure people that accent reduction is about clarity:  finding a sound that is still ‘you’, but that most people can easily understand. Most English speakers, especially in London and the bigger cities, can cope with different accents, but the easier it is for them, the more likely they are to get what you’re saying, and not be distracted by how you say it.

Then you’ll not only be ‘for real’, you’ll be live-o fam, y’get me?

No, didn’t think so…