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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (March 2010)


Can You Change Your Accent?
Defusing the Mystery of Accent Modification
By Juanita Ulloa

Most people think they are born and stuck with a certain fixed vocal sound and an unchangeable accent. This is completely untrue, but many people do not know where to turn to modify their sound or accent. Additionally, interpreters or teachers who depend on vocal clarity and consistency often feel negative about their target language accents if people do not understand what they are saying all the time. Asking for help can also be hard if one’s cultural identity is linked to a language.

Interpreters have to be great listeners to render large chunks of consecutive information at one time, so why would they not be able to listen to and mold their own sound just like they render meaning? Perhaps it is because most interpreter programs do not yet provide training on these issues. As a result, interpreters have had little input or feedback in this important area. Why not start now to turn this around?

I challenge each of you to read this article and re-examine how you think about your accent, your vocal production, and vocal health in light of your career as an interpreter. You can practice accent modification alone in the privacy of your own home. The following tips will help you begin to transform your accent, which is easily modifiable through adjustments in listening and practice.

Think About How You Sound
When we attend language classes, there are often many grammatical rules about spelling and syntax but few concerning sound, even though we originally learned our native language by listening to and imitating the sounds of various words. In addition, we are not accustomed to talking to anyone about how we think about the way we sound or our accent. One way to start to focus on this area is to ask yourself how similar your voice and your accent are to close friends or family members. Is your voice loud or are you soft-spoken? Do you speak with the same two or three note intonation range, as in Mandarin, or does your voice modulate with a five to seven “up and down” note range, more like Spanish or Italian speakers? What are your vocal tendencies? For example, is your voice high-pitched, low-pitched, gravelly, low volume, or high volume? Now write out a list of the 10 hardest words for you to pronounce perfectly in your target language. Try and also write down three or four qualities about your pronunciation of these words so you know on which areas you want to work.

Use the International Phonetic Alphabet to Memorize Difficult Sounds and to Take Notes
To help improve vocal articulation and intonation, many professional singers and their voice trainers, myself included, use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), developed by the International Phonetic Association. The alphabet is a phonetic notation system that uses symbols based primarily on the Latin alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken language. It is designed to represent only those qualities of speech that are distinctive in spoken language: phonemes, intonation, and the separation of words and syllables. Its main purpose is to provide a consistent and universally understood system for transcribing the speech sounds of any language. Each symbol is a visual representation of a particular sound. Interpreters can incorporate these symbols as part of their note taking routine to earmark difficult words before actually speaking them. Here are three symbols to get you started.

• The θ stands for “th,” as in the English word “the.” It is important to aspirate, or add air to the sound as you make it. Spanish speakers can find this symbol useful as a reminder not to say “D” by mistake, because the sound for the letter “D” is made by positioning the tongue in exactly the same place as the letter “T.” The only difference in the sound in the two languages is the aspiration.

• An upside down “e” or “ə” is called a schwa, or neutral vowel, and this vowel is probably the sound that is the least addressed, yet probably the most important vowel sound in the English language. Its sound combines “ah” and “uh” at the same time.

• The symbol “ʤ” represents a double consonant “dj” sound, which is produced by positioning the tongue behind the teeth, as in the words “judge” or “language.” Be sure you stop the sound fully with the tongue on “D” prior to progressing on to the full sound, which has an “ə” or schwa sound at the end as it tails off. Many English words ending in a silent “e” usually trail off with a schwa sound. Because of this, non-native English speakers can improve their diction if they learn to emphasize this sound.

Before you protest learning IPA with “I already have enough trouble learning my major languages, please don’t make me learn a new one!” keep in mind that these symbols are wonderful hedge-like memory builders for especially challenging sounds. They also serve interpreters well by adding to the consecutive note taking arsenal of symbols (available on or, thus helping one combine memory retention with a visual picture of the sound.

Lengthen English Vowels to Three Beats Each
Most languages except for English have short, one beat vowels. Professional singers, speakers, and radio announcers learn to lengthen vowels and shorten consonants, and interpreters need to do the same. If you take a paragraph and read it aloud slowly while physically beating three counts, you start to become aware of the glue that connects and carries sound: the vowels! Another technique is to read the same passage twice, the first time isolating out the vowels, and then repeating the same passage but adding the consonants back in. Try making the consonants shorter in length than the vowels. Besides helping your accent, this connecting of the notes, or legato as musicians call it in Italian (ligado in Spanish), smoothes out phrases and helps create a more natural flow leading toward idiomatic intonation. This is a useful technique for certain Asian languages, which tend to flow word to word instead of phrase to phrase.

Lengthen Consonants to Two Beats Each
While consonants help us articulate diction, they also stop the sound. In English they are often longer and always stronger than many other languages, except German. For example, notice that in the word “mother” the letter “m” has a definite preliminary “m” sound, where the lips meet together (known as bilabial) prior to the “m” traveling into the vowel, like when someone says “mmm….” Contrary to this, when pronouncing the letter “m” in Spanish, the lips are already coming apart as they say the letter and do not belabor and lengthen the sound.
Many non-native English speakers feel like they are dramatizing and almost spitting consonants out when pronouncing English correctly because of the sudden need for more aspiration. The letter “T” can be more clearly differentiated from the letter “D,” even though they are produced with the tongue in exactly the same position. The letter “P” can be differentiated from the letter “B,” even though both are produced with the lips pressed together. These two sets of consonants are called pairs because they are produced with the tongue in the same position, yet one pair is voiced, or produced adding sound in the vocal chords, and one pair is unvoiced, without any vocal chord sound. Unvoiced consonants like “T” and “D” are new to nonnative English speakers, but if isolated, one learns to aspirate, or add air, intensity, and uniqueness to the sound.

Remember to Take a Deep Breath
Getting a good breath will increase your volume and projection when necessary in a courtroom. Sometimes people complain that they cannot understand you, not because of your accent, but your lack of volume. Private or group voice lessons can teach you proper breathing techniques.

Practice Makes Perfect
Another useful technique is to find a study partner who speaks another source language. You can practice together by creating recordings and critiquing each other’s pronunciation. Set aside 10 minutes each day to practice, and be sure to include one or two new words each session.
¡Si se puede! Of course you can change your accent!