How to Change Your Accent – Let's Talk About Vowels
When looking to soften your accent, it is at first important to understand that it is no mean feat. The sounds you use to create your words and speech, are hard wired into your brain, when you speak, you are usually thinking about what you are saying, or trying to find the correct words to express yourself articulately, not about the sounds you are going to use to formulate the words.
When you decide you would like to soften your accent, you are embarking upon another kind of journey, that of putting new sounds into your head to make up old words, and so in order to use them, you now have to think before you speak, probably in a very different way from how you are used to!
One of the central features of changing your accent, is the vowel sounds, and this is because different languages have different vowel sounds, and it is the vowel sounds that are the building blocks of the words. Even if you have lived in England for twenty years, if you have never consciously or unconsciously learned the new vowel sounds, then you will be using your native languages vowel sounds, and so you will have retained an accent.
Each vowel sound requires a very specific physiological position. So if you are used to making a sound in your language, which is close, but not exactly the same as the English sound, then you will be likely to use it, instead of the accurate sound. Often these vowel sounds fall in between two of our English sounds, and this leads to confusion and misunderstanding. How annoying! If only all languages shared the same vowel systems, it would make life a whole lot easier!
(It is important to note that the vowels are only one component of changing your accent, there are two others. Consonants, are the second factor. And rhythm, stress and intonation in words and sentences, are the third. But in this article we will stick with vowels, more on the others later!)
As we mentioned, the vowels can be thought to be the building blocks of words. They contain the energy or the emotion of the word, as in a sense they come straight from the gut, say ahhh, and now say oooh can you see what I mean? Even on their own they express human emotions! All of them are expressed with an open mouth, the tongue and lips and jaw in a specific position. The consonants then, can be think of containing them in a sense, as all the consonants (apart from H) are made with contact somewhere in the mouth. So vowels are open sounds, and consonants make contact. Once you think of the vowels as containing the emotion of the word, you can begin to understand where actors get their power from, or how politicians use rhetoric and language to provoke emotion. Listen to Kenneth Brannagh doing a Shakespeare speech for example, his drawn out vowels are used specifically to create emotion in the listener. We love this one, on YouTube.
Now this brings us to another important feature of vowels. In Received Pronunciation (which is the official terminology for neutral English, or Queens English) we have twelve main vowel sounds, and these are divided into two groups, long vowels and short vowels. The long vowels must be made long enough, or else can easily get mixed up with their shorter neighbours. the sound Ahhh for example, is a long vowel sound. Its short neighbour, is Uh (as in hut). To make both these sounds, the jaw is dropped, and there is no smile, no width to the mouth. The “AHHH” is the sound you make if you go to the doctors and he wants to see your tongue. Try it in front of the mirror, you should be able to see your tongue! The “UH” sound is the same position, just that it is shorter so the jaw doesn’t actually need to drop quite as much. Make the two together “AHHH” “UH” “AHHH” “UH”. This should involve almost exactly the same position for both, and a nice open mouth, and flat tongue.
Good. Now let’s try it with words. “HEART, HUT, HEART, HUT” or “CALF, CUFF, CALF, CUFF”. “CALM, COME, CALM, COME”
It is important to get the length of the vowel, because that is the only factor which separates it from its neighbour in many words. Not just this, in the length of the vowel, lies the soul, or the aroma of the word. Make it too short, and the word feels empty. Hear the difference between the word hut and heart. Say heart with its full length, and it sounds beautiful and has the potential for poetry, “My heart is bursting”. Get it too short, and you’ve got a rather unromantic statement: “my hut is bursting”
Get the length, and this conveys to your listener that you understand the intricacies of English. Truly, it is a short cut to giving a sense to your listener that you really understand the language in all its complexities.
What you also might have noticed from the examples above, is that there are all kinds of spellings for the sounds. This is important, and often comes as a shock for the new student looking to change their accent. The spellings are not so helpful. In the word HEART, the letters E,A,R spells the sound AHHH. In the words CALF, and CALM, the AHHH sound is spelt with A,L. Similarly the UH sound is spelt sometimes with the letter “U” and other times with the letter “O”.
A little confusing, each sound does have a limited number of possible spellings. This can be helpful, but what the new student learns quite quickly, is that while spellings can act as a little bit of a guide, their ear, and listening skills are their new best friend.