FOUR PILLARS METHOD© OF ACCENT MANAGEMENT
By Sigmund Shonholtz
Learning another language as an adult is not easy. One of the most difficult aspects is learning how to pronounce words with sounds that you have never used in your native tongue. The FOUR PILLARS METHOD is intended to help with this daunting task by deconstructing the process. I developed the method over many years while I ran an antique store in West Hollywood, California. Daily, I had customers coming in from all over the world. I began to notice that each of these “English as a Second Language” customers had similar speaking problems when compared to other people from their countries. Sometimes, I could not make a sale because we could not understand each other. Over time, I developed a method for communicating with these customers. It worked so well that I occasionally took the liberty of asking if they wanted help with some hard words. They always said yes, and that is how it started. Below is the sum total of what seemed to work for the majority of people.
The FOUR PILLARS are helpful hints to keep you “tuned in” while you learn a new language.
1) The ear must hear.
2) The eyes must watch.
3) The mouth must know.
4) The brain must remember.
In order to speak a new language properly, you must listen carefully, and you must hear well also. You cannot correctly reproduce the sounds in your mouth if you do not hear the sounds correctly when you listen to other people speak. Unfortunately, most Americans do not articulate every sound in a word. Some letters, especially at the end of a word, are sometimes “swallowed.” For example, take the words “hard” and “sound.” If you listen carefully, you may notice that many people do not pronounce the D at the end of those words. It is “lost.” It will be “there” if those people say the words “hardly” and “soundly” but not if they say just the word “hard” or “sound.” Now take the word “song.” Many people will leave out the G at the end, and you will only hear the word with a very soft G. But if they say “songs,” you will hear it.
Every letter in a word should be pronounced, unless it is a silent letter. There are five letters most likely to be lost or swallowed at the end of a word: D, G, K, P, and T. (You can remember them with two words, DoG and KePT.) Some examples are “hard,” “song,” “fork,” “chop,” and “heart.” Try saying them yourself, and you can see how easy it is to “swallow” those letters at the end. If you make the word plural or add -ed, -ing, or -ly to the end, the word becomes clear upon pronunciation.
Another bad habit English speakers have when talking is starting a word with the last letter of the word before it. For instance, look at the sentence, “It is mine.” If not articulated, it sounds like, “I tis mine.” Here is another example: “This is it.” When spoken casually and quickly, it sounds like, “Thi si zit.” This again is because people are lazy or casual in speaking or not aware that they are doing it. Another example, “eight years,” will be spoken by some people as “A tyears.” The phrase “meant to” is yet another example. Said casually, it sounds like “mentoo.” Unfortunately, if you are just learning English, you will have a difficult time with this, and you may even pick up this bad habit. My friend from Australia—and everyone I know from Australia—says “A deen” for “eighteen.” Here is another instance: When two Ts are in the middle of a word, people tend to make them D sounds, as in the word “better” being spoken as “bedder.” Realizing this is key to speaking clearly.
When practicing, you can do your best to engage in conversation with people who know how to articulate clearly and how to enunciate. If the person is someone you are comfortable with, ask him or her to speak more slowly and clearly. Otherwise, pay close attention to those people you are certain are speaking well. Just knowing that people do not enunciate will help you listen more clearly.
Seeing is as important as listening. Deaf and partially deaf people learn to “hear” by watching people speak and seeing the movement of their lips. They learn to interpret what other people are saying. It is certainly an art to do it. But, in fact, we all do it to some degree. I play a game with my daughter called “Read My Lips.” One of us makes up a short sentence without sounds, and the other has to interpret it. We usually play this at a restaurant, and we use words about food. As with listening, watching people who speak clearly is important.
Science is telling us that by ten or twelve years of age, our brains are “accustomed” to certain sounds, and we may not “hear” some sounds made in another language. They are simply “alien” to us. We might recognize or understand the sound when we see the word written, but we may not recognize or, more accurately, hear the sound when it is spoken. We will instead hear it inaccurately, which will certainly affect the way we then make that sound.
Since every language has sounds in it that will be alien to a non-native speaker, it is important to listen carefully and watch carefully. It is also essential to know where these new sounds actually “live” in your mouth. They must live somewhere, but if you cannot find them or understand how to make the sounds, listening and watching will not help. It will take a lot of practice to learn where these new sounds live in your mouth. Your tongue and mouth most likely will not be accustomed to some of these new sounds, nor where they can be found in your mouth. You will need to first “find” them and practice them.
The brain must remember. It seems like this would not be such a problem, but it is, even though you have listened and watched carefully. And you have learned to make those difficult sounds, you can easily forget where they live in your mouth. To help you with this, you will need to find a “code word” to refer to when you forget how to make a particular sound. The goal is to find the most difficult of those sounds and then choose a word you can easily say, which will be the “reminder word” for that difficult sound (explained further in Part Two). When you are speaking and realize that you have “misplaced” the difficult sound, the code word will help bring you back to that sound.
Words are broken down into sections called syllables, and those syllables are broken down into sounds represented by letters. When you say a letter in the alphabet, that is not always the same sound made when you use that letter in a word. For example, consider the letter A. Pronounce it as the letter A, and you will notice that it is made up of two half sounds completing the letter only after they have been combined. It sounds like “Ahhy.” But if you use the letter A in a word like “apple,” it appears to be made up of only the beginning half sound. In a word like “ate” or “hate,” the letter is fully expressed, but that is because of the next letter, the T sound. The T sound completes the letter A.
The letters B, C, D, and E all have the same ending (several letters end that way). The letter H is pronounced by using the first half sound of the letter A and then adding a CH sound. But put it in a word like “help” or “hope,” and it has a soft HEH sound, like you are blowing some air out.
The letter S is pronounced ESS. But use it in a word such as “soft” or “soap,” and there is just the back part of the sound. The front part of S, the EH sound, is found in words like “effort” and “end,” but those words begin with the letter E, which sounds nothing like the word “effort.” The letter W is pronounced “double U,” and it actually has three syllables. But in a word like “word,” it is made with only the lips and air.
If you go completely through the alphabet and say each letter correctly and carefully, nearly all of them comprise two half sounds. However, when used inside of a word, they are frequently expressed only as one of the half sounds, either the front half or the back half. For the letter W, the sound is never used. Of course, you can find many examples that do not fit these protocols. With “eat,” for example, clearly the first sound is E, but it is followed by a T, which helps many letters “express themselves” completely when spoken.
English is probably no more difficult to learn than any other language. As I pointed out earlier, what makes it difficult when you are older is finding and making those sounds that are not made in your native language. Consider it a form of entertainment, but with enough effort, you will begin to make those hard-to-find sounds. It may happen that you “lose” a sound inside your mouth. In other words, a sound you could make one moment, you cannot make the next moment. These hard-to-make sounds need code words. A code word is a word you can always say that has the beginning of the difficult sound in it. But since your mind approaches the sound from another direction this way, you are able to make it (like someone who stutters but can sing perfectly well). For example, I had a Korean friend who could not say the word “squirrel.” The beginning sound was difficult for him. We played around with some words and finally settled on “squirt” as the code word, which he could say and remember. Every time he “lost” the sound for “squirrel,” he said “squirt,” and it brought the “location” of the sound back to his mouth.
Code words can be difficult to settle on, though, without some help. Many cultures, for instance, do not make the TH sound that we use so often in English with words like “father,” “mother,” “them,” and “those.” It is a particularly difficult sound if French is your native language. To say any word with a TH sound, you need to stick your tongue out just a little. Some people simply do not want to do that because it seems rude. Sadly, you cannot say “them” or “those” without doing it a little bit. Typically, instead, the TH sound is expressed with a V or D sound. “Them” and “those” become “dem” or “dose,” and mother becomes “mover” or, in some cases, “muder.”
Some cultures do not have the W sound, which is made by “pursing” the lips and pushing some air out. Those people end up using the V sound for the W, so that “we” sounds like “ve.” A Hungarian friend of mine cannot make the TH sound, and she cannot say “when” either. When she speaks, “when” becomes “ven.” She has been speaking English for thirty years, and I still have trouble understanding her.
Some Asian cultures do not use the R sound, so “right” becomes “light.” The L sound in “light” is made by touching your tongue near the roof of your mouth or behind your front upper or lower teeth. The R sound is made more by a vibration with the lips pursed together than with the tongue. In fact, your tongue should not touch anything in your mouth if you are making an R sound. So the code for an R sound is “No tongue in R is RIGHT.”
READING THE WORD:
Another important tip is to read the words that have sounds you have trouble pronouncing. Just looking at the words and the letters you have problems with will help you enormously in pronouncing these sounds. Take the letters of a word apart, and figure out for yourself where the half sounds are. Then “reassemble” the word by “dissecting” it, as if you were in a laboratory. You already know which sounds are the hardest for you to make. Looking at the written word is critical.
Practice saying all the letters in the alphabet, one at a time, everywhere. Do not be concerned with anyone who sees you speaking to yourself. They will presume you are on your mobile phone. You have an objective. Do not care what people think of you. If you are concerned about what people think when it comes to your objective, then you will never reach your goal, in any arena. Experiment with your tongue inside your mouth, and why would you not? For example, the A sound is made in the front of your mouth, usually without touching your tongue to anything. However, you can do it by placing your tongue above the center of your mouth or below, even touching the base of your mouth. Try and make the sounds for each letter by stretching your tongue inside your mouth. Imagine that your mouth, or the sounds you make in your mouth, is being “examined” on a bell curve. There is an optimum place in your mouth where a particular sound lives. However, you can still make that sound at “both ends” of the bell curve. You will quickly realize that each sound can be made in several ways with your mouth. While there is an optimum spot, knowing how much flexibility you have will empower you. That flexibility will give you more control and dynamism as well. This “power” you create for yourself will allow you to focus on what you are really great at, not on the details of simply being understood.
While it seems awkward, one of the most helpful methods for learning a new language is the idea of “exaggeration.” This means that you must overemphasize all of your mouth movements, beyond anything you would normally do in a conversation with someone. Ask those people around you whom you trust to help you. Speak to them very slowly, clearly, and deliberately. Do not be embarrassed or ashamed. If you are afraid, you will never reach your potential. If you are with friends, just tell them you are practicing your English. Remember, exaggeration is your “new station.”
Experiment! Go on the Internet and look for words that have particular letters in them that you want to practice with. For example, look for four-letter words that start with the letter A, and say them. Next, look for four- or five-letter words with A in the middle, and say those. Continue this exercise and see what happens to the sound of that letter in each place in a word.
The most important thing you can do is to concentrate on every sound you make. Practice talking in front of a mirror. Listen to talk shows with people who speak well. Above all else, listen very carefully to the people around you who speak well, and soon, you will notice an improvement. In fact, do not be surprised if other people notice your improvement as well.
As I expressed in the beginning of this article, this is a daunting task. Do not get frustrated, and do not give up. Just keep practicing and listening and stretching your sounds. Follow these simple rules, and eventually, you will be able to speak English very well. You will always have an accent, but with enough practice, it will be slight. More importantly, you will know that you can achieve anything you invest time and effort into pursuing.
©Sigmund Shonholtz 2015