If you’ve ever worked with me, you know that I am always going on and on about the importance of practice in acquiring the standard American accent (or any accent, for that matter!) There is a lot of research supporting the how, what and why to practice, but today, I want to focus on a crucial tip that is often overlooked- the importance of practicing slowly. Many professionals aspiring for perfection in their fields use the approach of slow practice, such as musicians and athletes, but it is equally valuable for those working on acquiring another accent or dialect.
When you slow down your practice, you allow yourself increased time for auditory processing, and increased awareness of the physical sensation of your articulators. You can really tune into what is going on, thereby forming a stronger connection in your brain. Questions you can ask yourself when you aren’t rushing through your practice may include: “Is my tongue high? Low? Somewhere in the middle?” “Are my lips relaxed? Tense? What does that feel like?” “Is my jaw high? Low?” “Was the sound long enough? Perhaps too long?”
So why isn’t “average talking speed” better for practicing? The main reason for this is because our listener’s ear, as well as our own, is more forgiving when we speak more quickly; there are simply fewer physical seconds in which the auditory information will be processed. This is fine and good if it’s a feature with which you are very familiar, but when you are working on establishing a new sound or pattern, you don’t want to get away with it sounding “good enough” when speaking really quickly, but being not quite perfect when your rate is slowed down. In fact, in the initial stages, the more time your ear has to process the sound, the more easily it will form a distinct auditory target for that sound, including important features for quality, pitch and length. I recommend to all of my clients to initially listen to the sounds they are focusing on at a reduced speed for this very reason; formants, the frequencies that determine a vowel, are easier to perceive at a slower rate- and accent modification is very much about improving auditory perception abilities.
One of the most common reasons that my clients cite for practicing at a fast rate is that they want to sound like a native speaker, and native speakers tend to speak quickly (except maybe Barack Obama!). In fact, several of my clients from India have shared with me that speaking quickly is perceived as a sign of “good English,” and this is often an unspoken goal, regardless of one’s proficiency in the language.
But instead of jumping right to your final goal of quick, fluent speech, start at the beginning and give slow practice a try- speak at a relaxed, natural-sounding, but slow rate, be mindful and methodical, and enjoy the learning process. Think of slow practice as a good investment of your time, since you’re allowing yourself the opportunity to perfect your target- so when you do start to speak more quickly, it will sound natural, accurate, and most importantly, easy to understand. Also, you will be sure that you are hitting your target correctly, thereby increasing your confidence, which will contribute to improving many other aspects of your voice and accent, but that’s for another article!
Slowing down can certainly be an art at first, but as with anything, it will come when given attention and diligence. Trust me when I say- the benefits will be worth it!