My sister is seven years older than me, so in school, most of the teachers first met her, and then they met me. I remember being about five or six years old, and our class was being screened by the school’s speech therapist. One by one, she asked us to repeat after her. She was checking how we articulated our speech sounds and words. I’ve always been pretty good at enunciating. She asked me to repeat after her:
the yellow glass. I repeated: the yellow glass.
the red bricks. the red bricks.
how is your sister? how is your sister?
no, no, no, how is your sister?
She was finished screening me for speech impediments. She wanted to know how my sister was doing. My pronunciation was good, but apparently, perhaps I was slow in other areas.
Pronunciation is an important part of communication. You can have the most eloquent language and words at your avail, but if you don’t say it correctly, that mispronunciation could overshadow everything else. It can effect your message, as well as your audience’s impression of you. But when do you need to call in the professional?
Current thought on accents is that as long as you are clear and understood, even if your accent reveals you are from a certain part of the world, it is ok. Clarity is key, but a “foreign” accent, that makes you interesting. Of course, if you’re an actor auditioning for a specific role with a specific accent or dialect, then it pays to work to adjust your accent, even with the help of a professional dialect coach. If you want to work on your clarity and pronunciation, though, when is it enough to do it yourself?
I work with different types of clients- those who are actors and want that California-sounding non-accent, and those with a heavy foreign accent, eager to be understood. I recommend that you start on your own. For general clarity, choose the type of pronunciation you want, for example, American, British, etc. Watch television or films from that part of the world. Listen to radio or podcasts on the internet. As simple as it sounds to just, “watch tv,” broadcast media provides an excellent way to listen to the various speech styles and pattern your own speech after the one you prefer. Before the ability to speak, comes the ability to listen. A baby learns the rules of speech and language by first hearing and listening and then adapting. We need to hear how we want to sound- that’s our target. Only then can we try to imitate it. And here, imitation is a good thing.
So you’ve listened, and you know your target. And you’ve even tried to imitate the sound. How do you know if you’re on target? Record yourself. It’s the audio version of looking in the mirror. And you don’t need to buy a special recorder. Most pc’s today include a built-in recorder. You do need a microphone though. And if you use your pc for programs such as Skype, you probably have a microphone. If you don’t, they are readily available for sale at most electronic stores or online, ranging in price from about $5-$20, at the low end. It’s often hard to listen to your own voice, but it’s an effective way to hear how close to or far away you are from your target pronunciation. And this self monitoring is the second step, after listening, to improving or changing your pronunciation.
By continuing to listen, modify, monitor, and adjust, you are in the process of shaping your pronunciation.
So when is it a good idea to hire a coach? It depends on who you are. Some people are very determined to do it on their own. Others learn better with the help of someone else, serving as their monitor and providing encouragement and tips. Either way is good. I suggest you start on your own, and see how it goes, and if you feel you want to try with someone who is dedicated to helping you make this change, then you contact a dialect coach.
If the element you want to change is more about a specific pronunciation issue or a speech impediment, rather than consulting with a dialect coach, you may want to consult with a speech language pathologist, or a speech therapist, who can help isolate where you are having trouble and with which sounds, and how to correct it. Some speech impediments are easily corrected, once we listen and hear the correct way to pronounce the sound. Others are more serious and can be caused by a hearing problem, a physiological problem, a memory problem, or other causes. A speech therapist should be able identify the cause for your impediment, sometimes with the help of a physician.
When you do decide to work on your pronunciation, realize that it can require alot of patience and perserverance. Most pronunciation work includes listening, speaking aloud, reading aloud, and repetition. And because everyone is unique, there is no one recipe for everyone. What I can guarantee, and you can repeat this after me, is that with patience and commitment to seeing it through, you will hear the difference. And so will your audience.