Getting Familiar With Accents: Advice From a Trilingual

Come va? Marhaba! Yeoboseyo! Cómo estás?

Hello Tutors! Is English your “second” language? 

My name is Wendee, and growing up, we spoke three languages in our home, learning very quickly to switch and toggle our language mindset. 

Plus, as a native New Yorker, I was exposed to many cultures and heard many diverse languages daily. 

My work abroad enabled me to experience even more and learn to “meet and greet” as an ice-breaker in the countries I visited. I picked up the phrases I needed to feel confident as a traveller. 

I gained an “ear” by listening to people talk, always having a local TV channel or radio on in the background while visiting a country. Your students may tell you they do the same thing to hone their English skills. 

After teaching ESL for many years, I always come back to the fact that familiarity with other languages, even just phonemes and intonation, is an asset to an ESL teacher. These elements were essential when I started working (globetrotting!) here on Cambly.

Maybe our Cambly students’ needs are casual, such as tourism, or perhaps they have more specific goals in mind for learning English. 

One of the biggest requests I get on Cambly is for students who want to reduce or nullify their accents. The desire to lessen their accents may be for personal reasons, foreign study, qualifying exams, or because they want to sound more “authentic” as some of the actors and singers I have tutored. 

I always felt an accent from another country was charming, and I tell my students that their identity is unique. Nonetheless, there are many times an accent really can be a game-changer

We are a Global Community on Cambly

When tutoring ESL, I always remember that English is the target language, not the better or more helpful language. 

While it’s true that it has become increasingly important for school or business, we should remember while teaching English:

  • Not to dismiss or place second the students’ mother tongue
  • When correcting an accent, be courteous and constructive
  • Try to offer an alternative word if they are genuinely frustrated with pronunciation
  • Learn how to break down the sounds and write them out phonetically

4 Tips For Dealing With Accents

Now that we’ve laid the ground rules of dealing with different accents lets get into some of my tried and true tips that will help you next time you answer a call from a student with a thick accent. 

Tip #1. Ask The Student How to Pronounce Words in Their Language

I find the students on Cambly (especially Cambly Kids) love to hear you “struggle” with their language; it’s a great equalizer and not to mention very useful in helping them overcome shyness about their own accent obstacles. 

Having them pronounce a word in their native language, you get a feel for the sounds that compose their speech. Trying to pronounce it yourself gives you a first-hand sense of how to correct the issues they may be having in our language.

Tip #2. Identify Problem Letters and Sounds

We can address those with the many resources and drills available on the web and the Cambly Library.

Discerning L and R for Asian speakers has a phoneme logic: this character is someplace in between for them. They need to perform two procedures to get it right in English. 

In the case of L and R, it’s a problem solving on two levels, don’t forget to take the time to practice rocking and rolling with them. 

First, decide which “sound” they will use for that word (rote memorization of the correct meaning and definition) and then train them to articulate it. Ask them to teach you this complex sound in their language. 

It’s guaranteed to help distinguish this phoneme. 

Tip #3. Create a Feedback Strategy According to Their Accent

You can create a feedback strategy based on their accent by listening to the problem letters and sounds. 

For students taking IELTS, TOEFL or a qualifying exam, their accent can change their future; we need an excellent strategy to help. 

There are few better tools to clarify an accent than knowing how their specific language sounds and which words get mispronounced regularly. 

When a Brazilian uses the traditionally Portuguese Heh sound when they see the letter R, it turns “How do you rate that restaurant?” to “How do you hate that restaurant?” 

Or an Asian speaker who says “Let’s Play!” when they want to communicate “Let’s Pray!” 

So, while I truly love to hear an accent and the unique way we all communicate, there are times we need to correct our students. Not to sound American per se, but so they can feel confident and expressive in English.

P.S. Remember to be respectful, kind, and patient while giving feedback about a students accent! They may be insecure about their accent and if you are patient with them, they will be more likely to learn (and have fun!)

Tip #4. Remember to Consider Regional Accents!

Everyone has an accent; we all have unique ways of speaking and enunciating that tells others who we are and where we are from. 

In the States, we have hundreds of regionalisms that show off the charm of each part of the country. 

I attended university in the United Kingdom and southern California, and being raised in Manhattan, “The Crossroads of the World”, I have an accent with few regionalisms. 

Understanding regional accents come in handy when working with students on Cambly. My students tell me that my precise delivery and the absence of a thick regional accent is helpful for some learners. 

No matter what kind of accent you have, a careful, consistent and clear delivery with minimal use of phrasal verbs is most helpful for beginners. 

Please note: More experienced speakers love to learn idioms and phrasal verbs. These sessions can be entertaining and teach your student a little about the common phrases used in your home town.

But, how do I know if I’m teaching accents well? 

Great question!

Longer sessions and regular reservations are evidence that students are beginning to recognize phonemes, sounds and intonations, and they can respond and repeat accordingly. It’s more productive (and more fun) to have conversations when they can understand you easily!  

When you click with a student and can understand each other’s jokes, change lanes in subjects, and remember their problem areas, you can focus your time on how to flow the conversation best. 

With trust, they can accept a rapid and discreet correction and continue the conversation, giving them confidence and a sense of accomplishment.

I hope these tips help you out next time you get a call from a student with a charming accent! 

Remember, accents are representative of where that student is from, and we should celebrate them because that’s part of what makes the student uniquely themselves. 

About the Writer
Wendee is a native New Yorker with a PhD in Psychology who pursued a passion for teaching, writing and travel that led to an adventurous life on the road for over ten years. Five continents, dozens of countries and lots of food later; she and her dog Monte are now back home. Her sense of wonder and curiosity is fueled every day as a tutor in the Cambly global community.

Check out Wendee’s Cambly profile here.

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