Entries Tagged as 'Listening'

Accent Reduction Tips

If you’re thinking about altering your accent, try focusing on these aspects of language:

  • study the characteristics of your language’s sound system and how it differs from English.  Start with the differing consonants, which seem to create more misunderstandings.
  • practice in phrases (not individual words) and how one word blends with the words surrounding it
  • move your mouth more than you’re used to – open it wider like you’re yawning, spread the corners of your lips to meet your ears!  This sounds like an exaggeration, but moving your mouth in different ways is a major component of forming new sounds.
  • watch Americans’ lips when they speak – watching on TV is OK to avoid any awkwardness, but the Simpsons, Family Guy, or some other cartoon won’t help you.
  • listen to and imitate sentence stress and intonation and stress patterns within phrases (my favorite activity for this is listening to and singing along with music)
  • copy what you hear exactly and often (as exact and as often as you can)

This is all I can think of for now, but there are more.  I’ll post them as I start to remember them.  For now, I hope these help.

A Thought on Accents

When people say they want to work on their accent, they usually say that people can’t understand them.  A lot of times, what happens is that the characteristics of your native language might seep into your new language so much that it can be difficult for someone who is unfamiliar with those language patterns to understand your spoken words.

If fact, in Spain, the guy at the cafe refused to serve me coffee unless I said the word the way they said it.  (Not cor-TA-doh, it’s cor-TAO).  I think it was because even though I knew the word, my American English characteristics were so strong that what he heard wasn’t me ordering coffee in Spanish- it was a combination of nonsense American-sounding syllables.  If I were to go to England, or watch British soap operas on TV, I might encounter a similar situation.  Even though I speak English, the characteristics of the English I would hear in England would take some getting used to.  For English learners, compound that with new vocabulary and regional colloquialisms, and you have a perfect storm.

Accents can be created by maneuvering your tongue, lip, and jaw.  Accents, however, aren’t just how our mouths are positioned.  They represent, to a large degree, our familial and regional heritage.  People take pride in their accents because they represent where they’re from and who their parents are.  Culture is very important, and should not be overlooked in the discussion of accents.  Some places might be perceived as better than others, which is why some accents might be perceived as superior to others.  There are no superior accents; only perceptions of superior accents exist.

Rather than learning an accent for its perceived superiority, start with these questions:

When you want to speak English well enough to be understood, where will you be?  What are the sound characteristics of the consonants and vowels of that region?  These characteristics vary from place to place.  What about these sounds are difficult for you to say (based on your native language).  If you work on your mouth position for these sounds, will people understand you?

Ultimately, your goal is to communicate to get your needs met.  My tips for starting on accent improvement are in the beginning stages, (1) refrain from using too many regional expressions and (2) keep your word choice and sentence structure simple.


One Language at a Time? Not so…

This summary of a research study by the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that when adults read in their new language, they’re recalling their first language. According to one of the researchers,

“Bilingual individuals retrieve information from their native language even when it’s not necessary, or, even more surprising, when it is counterproductive, since native language information does not help when reading or listening to second-language words,” Thierry said.

Even when it’s counterproductive?  Also of note,

Michael Chee, MBBS, of Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, who was unaffiliated with the study, said the findings show that even though people who learn a second language later in life are discouraged from directly translating words from their native language, they may be doing so anyway.

My takeaway for adult students of English is this: If you’re studying and you know that your brain is using your native language for translating without your conscious permission, try to incorporate study habits that intentionally avoid translation.

Some activities might include:

  • not using a dictionary…use context clues for definitions of new words
  • turn off subtitles while watching movies in English
  • ask a native speaker to explain a word or phrase instead of translating it

Basically, your brain is translating anyway, and it might not be helping you.  You can help yourself by adding some small changes to your study habits to at least cut down the amount of translating you do.

Much or Many?

I thought some of you might have the same question about much and many as one of my students.  Here’s the question my student asked:

Mrs. Allen,

I don’t get when I use Many and Much

Correct: I have so much work.
Incorrect: I have so many work.

I know the first one sounds better but still don’t get why.

Here’s what I told her:

Your question has to do with count and non-count nouns.  If you can count the noun (like “pen”), you can say one pen, two pens, three pens.  A noun like “work” is non-count.  You can’t say “one work, two works”.  You CAN say “one job, two jobs” or “one assignment, two assignments”, but if you’re talking about work, the word “work” is non-count.


Many goes with Count Nouns
goes with Non-Count nouns

Ex:  There are so many assignments I have to complete.  It’s too much work.

I hope this helps!

Martin Luther King, Jr.: I have a dream

Today is Martin Luther King Day.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement, which took place in the 1950s and 1960s.  In August 1963, he delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech in Washington D.C.:

Study Break: Jason Mraz – I’m Yours

With a lot of songs, words are shortened, lengthened, or invented, and misused grammar is often forgiven in order to fit a phrase into the rhythm of the song.  Can you identify any of these nonce words or grammar liberties in Jason Mraz’ song “I’m Yours”?

Tip for Tuesday: Focus on Auxiliaries

Today’s tip is to focus on auxiliaries.  Do you need to review auxiliaries?  Simply put, they are the “helping verbs” that aid in forming questions, negatives, and short answers.


  • Do you like coffee? (question)
  • I don’t like coffee. (negative)
  • Yes, I do. (short answer)

When you hear a question from an English speaker, pay close attention to the auxiliary used.  When you answer, don’t use just one word.  Instead, include the auxiliary in your answer.

Focusing on auxiliaries in questions and including them in your reply will help you with verb tense, grammatical accuracy, listening skills, and language analysis.

Have a native English speaking partner ask you these questions in their most natural speech, and practice answering with the correct auxiliary:

  • Can you come over on Sunday?
  • Have you had lunch yet?
  • Will you have enough time to do your homework?
  • Is it going to rain tomorrow?
  • Did you see Avatar?
  • Do you have a Twitter account?
  • Can you mail these packages on your way out?

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Making Small Talk

Some people don’t waste any time.  They like to get right to the point.  Others will talk for a while until they can trust you.

This trust-building part of the conversation is called small talk.  Often overlooked because it is not always the norm in every culture, in the United States small talk is very common in both business and in social settings.  Using small talk helps develop trust between two people at a party or across the conference table.  Learning a few small talk rules will help you pave the way to more open communication when the partnership or friendship becomes more serious.

Some small talk topics include:

  • sports
  • weekend activities
  • weather

Small Talk Tips:

  • Keep the topic current.  If you’re talking about weather, just talk about the weather today.  If sports is your preference, know who is playing, who played, and who won.
  • Listen carefully so that you can respond to what the person says.  When you respond, try to add your own opinion, too.

Here’s a sample small talk conversation about the weather.

A:  What a beautiful day!
B:  It sure is.  I heard it is supposed to be 70 degrees.
A:  That’s good.  We need it.
B:  I know.  It’s been so cold lately.

Tip for Tuesday: Language Rhythm

Begin to understand English better by understanding the rhythm of languages.  While some languages rhythm patterns are similar, recognizing how languages have different rhythms can help your listening skills.

First, listen for  a rhythm to your native language.  The trick is that you are so used to your own language patterns and finding the rhythm might be difficult at first.  The good news is you know your own language’s rhythm already;  you learned it at a very, very early age.  You will have to rediscover it for this activity.

Second, listen for a rhythm in English.  How?  Listen to any news or radio talk show, native speakers, interviews, podcasts, etc, and start paying attention.  Don’t pay attention to the words yet.  Just listen for a rhythm.  The rhythm comes from the timing of the stressed syllables.  When you think you have found a rhythm, start tapping or clapping along.  Tap only on the beats.

This activity alone will not be enough to perfect your English, but combined with other speaking activities, it will certainly help.  Recognizing the rhythm helps you identify where strings of speech break down into individual phrases and words.  This activity will also eventually help you speak with the rhythm that native speakers are expecting…making your speech more understood by others.

One way or the other, the rhythm is going to get you…