A False Start, or Real Hope? Using American Pronunciation in Everyday Life

You’ve practiced your American pronunciation every day and you were very pleased with how it sounded. Your confidence was building and you felt that you were really making progress.

And then it happened. You spoke to someone who totally misunderstood you.

So, you wonder. Was I REALLY making progress? Maybe this was just a false start. Maybe I’ll never get it and I should just quit trying.

Does that sound familiar?

Just last week, I had a client ask me about this. Just when she thought things were improving, a sentence slipped out that was hard to understand, and she began to question all the work she had been doing. Was it my fault? Will it ever improve? Should we just give up?

I asked her to think about whether the speech sounded better more often than it sounded worse. She agreed that it did, so I assured her that it is a step by step process, not an all at once change.

Yes, you may get a sound correctly when you practice at home and still say it wrong when talking to a colleague. That doesn’t mean you will never say it correctly to a colleague, but it does mean that your brain is still adapting to this new way of saying it.

There are some times that will almost certainly be harder than others, so let me prepare you for those.

At first, your speech will probably sound the best while working with a native speaker and imitating what they say. It is easier to repeat correct sounds and intonation than it is to produce them on your own. So, you might be surprised, for example, when you do really well during your lesson but practicing at home is harder.

Simple words are often harder to pronounce correctly. You would think that the little, simple words would be the easiest to change and that longer, more complicated words would be harder to learn. In reality, the simple, short words are usually the hardest to use correctly in conversation.Typically, these are the words you say many times every day and the old pronunciation has become firmly ingrained in your brain. You may find that it takes quite a bit of practice to correctly say words like and, the, with, of, make, or come .

Times of emotional stress, whether from nervousness or anger, will cause you to revert to your old speech patterns. It is very common when you give a presentation or have an emotional exchange with someone to find that your speech is harder to understand. Just when you really want to make your point clearly, it may be harder to do so. It will take extra practice to maintain your new speech patterns during stressful situations.

When you are tired, you will tend to revert to your old speech patterns. It takes extra effort to make any new skill an integrated habit, so don’t expect your speech to be any different. When I meet with my clients, I can almost always tell when they are tired because their accent sounds heavier than when they are well rested. It does take extra effort at first, but over time the new patterns will come more easily – even when you are tired.

At this point, you may be wondering if your American pronunciation will ever be where you want it to be.

Have you ever watched a baby learning to walk? They take a shaky step, then fall. They stand up again, take another step, and fall. They stand up again, take 2 steps, and fall again. Over and over, they repeat this process until before long, they can walk all the way across the room without falling down.

This is much the same way that your American pronunciation will develop – one step at a time. One day, you will be able to maintain it for an entire conversation.

If you give up the first time you make a mistake, you will have no more than a false start. But, if you keep getting up and trying again, then you have real hope of speaking English more clearly and confidently. And soon, you will be using that American pronunciation as easily as you walk down the street.