From Language Enthusiast to Accent Coach
Growing up loving languages
I am a language coach who specializes in accent reduction coaching. What this means is that I help my students reduce their foreign accent and sound more native. While I only recently jumped into full-time coaching, in many ways my lifelong love of learning languages helped propel me in this direction.
I grew up in Hong Kong in a multilingual environment. At home, we spoke four languages: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese so it was a real mix of languages, reflecting the various places my family members originated from. At home, I spoke American English while at school, I listened to the British English our teachers mostly spoke.
At school, I jumped on the chance to learn languages, and aside from Mandarin lessons I took French at school, I started a Spanish club and even a Russian club. I also created a fictional language imagining what a Latin-based Chinese creole language might look like in an alternative history for a school project, kind of similar to how David J Peterson created Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones but without the getting paid part.
Even before I made the jump from working a regular job as a web designer, I would often surprise speakers of other languages with facts about their own languages that they themselves didn’t even know. I knew about these facts because I often read about the languages, either in books, or just even in Wikipedia. The following are some things about English you might not have known:
- Did you know that “s” in the words “cats” and “dogs” are pronounced differently? In “cats” it’s an s sound, whereas in “dogs” it’s a z sound. Say them slowly and pay attention! In fact, the English plural is most commonly a z sound rather than an s sound, and there is a systematic (but slightly scientific) reason for this variation that I cover in my classes as part of my curriculum.
- Similarly, whether you pronounce the words “merry”, “Mary”, and “marry” the same or differently may give away what part of the US you are from! While most of the US pronounces these the same, there are small but significant communities in the northeast that still differentiate these. Take a look at a video I created about this phenomenon.
- Did you know that in many varieties of American English the words “dog” and “off” have different vowels from “fog” and “dock”? Contrast this with British English where they all have the same vowel. In fact, Eastern parts of the US, words such as “dog”, “off”, “long”, and “coffee” have the same vowel as in “torn”! In fact, in the Philadelphian dialect of English, the words “mad” and “bad” don’t rhyme with “sad” and “had”. Nor do the two “can”s in the sentence “Can I have a can of Coke?”.
The last point is interesting as it illustrates something that many of my students have difficulty with. English, being a strange language, has a LOT of vowels. Whereas the average language has eight vowels, depending on the dialect, English can have between 15 to 21 distinct vowels!
How knowing other languages helps
Needless to say, vowels are one of the areas I work with students in order to improve their accents. In addition, I’ve helped my students in many ways, not only by understanding how their languages work, but also by really understanding the human mouth and how the tongue, the vocal cords, nose, and sound waves function and interact to make all the sounds!
- Imagine the phrase “Look!” in a Russian accent. You probably imagined it with a very heavy “L” and “oo” sound. Russian actually has two L sounds, one of which sounds lighter like the English L in lap and one of which is darker like the one you just imagined, similar to English pal, but much “heavier”. However, Russian tends to use the heavy L in front of the vowel-like “oo”. Knowing this helps me teach the Russian-speaking student in terms of something he/she already knows.
- Imagine the intonation of someone with a Singaporean or Cantonese accent. You probably can hear a very staccato, rapid-fire type of speech where every syllable is exactly the same length. These languages give every syllable the same length, whereas in English, some are long and some are short. Some are stressed and some are not. I train my students to hear the difference and then produce it, by listening, imitating, and finally internalizing it.
For me, teaching my students is rewarding. Seeing (and hearing) a student improve fills me with pride. I like seeing them finally hear the differences between two similar sounds and finally accurately produce this sound. Besides this, I also just love sharing interesting things about language and getting others interested in this marvelous human capacity!
Maybe I can help you too?
I continue learning and teaching. I think that’s the most important thing, to keep learning and improving on what I love doing. When I’m not teaching, I take two very affordable hours of Russian a week on italki and also create and look for new materials with which to teach my students. Not the formal materials that you learn in textbooks (who says “how do you do?” anymore?) but examples of real-life English phenomena. This can demonstrate either new slang and grammar, but also various types of speech and accents.
Besides this, I am also starting to put more material on my YouTube link and Instagram as well as on my own company: Adrian’s Accent Coaching. At least for me, the joy of learning has also converted itself into a calling that helps me help others discover the beauty and curiosities hidden within languages we use every day!