Working on accent reduction and diction improvement is an art unto itself. It is also an important investment for your career because it helps you greatly in presenting better and making yourself understood. In this globalized world, American English is increasingly becoming the language of choice across different industries. It is therefore important for those who were not born with that accent to work on how they use the language and improve upon it bit by bit. This is where experts like Rebecca Linquist come in. Rebecca is a speech, accent, and voice coach. She specializes in helping foreign-born executives and non-native speakers of American English cross the accent gap and become more effective communicators in their field. Speaking with fellow presentation skills expert Elizabeth Bachman, Rebecca discusses in some detail some of the prominent features of American English that most non-native speakers have to learn. To get more of this interesting content, you can get access to Rebecca’s book, “American Speak,” and her YouTube channel.
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I Can’t Understand You!
Accent and Diction Strategies
This is the show where we interview experts from around the world on presentation skills, how to be heard, how to be visible, and how to deal with communication challenges whether it’s inside a meeting, on a stage or on a Zoom call. My guest is Rebecca Linquist, who is a speech accent and voice coach. We’re going to be talking about how to make yourself understood and heard. Rebecca is a speech-voice and accent coach who specializes in helping foreign-born executives and non-native speakers of American English bridge the accent gap to become dynamic, authentic, and inspired communicators, and excel in their field of choice in the global arena.
I do a great deal of work with people on how to speak clearly and be understood because if people can understand you, they will tune you out. Working on accent reduction and speaking clearly in another language, is an art unto itself. There’s a great deal of physicality involved and that’s where I will usually send people to an accent reduction coach like Rebecca. One of the things that Rebecca has done is she has authored the book, American Speak, which lays out not on how you pronounce this vowel and this word, but also why American English has become the Business Standard.
She’s an author, a senior manager, educator, trainer and a public speaker in a variety of roles, and has coached executives in Silicon Valley for more than twenty years. We went a little bit into the politics and the details of the language. I’m a word geek, so for me this was fun to go in and talk about, how words are done and why you pronounce something that way, etc. It’s fascinating, the techniques and the tools of how you communicate. Here we go to the interview with Rebecca Linquist.
Rebecca Linquist, I am happy to have you as a guest on the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
I’m delighted to have you here. It’s so much fun to be talking about language and accents because I am a total language geek. You have a wonderful book called American Speak, which is full of all sorts of insights that I love. I’m excited to ask you about that. I’ll try not to go too much into the woods of diction. Although, the two of us could probably geek out for a while. Before we begin, I’d like to ask you the question I asked everybody, which is if you were to share the stage with someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? Who would you like to interview? What would you ask them? Who should be listening?
For me, the person that I would love to be in the room with whether it’s an interview or a dinner would be Robin Williams. I feel that he added so much to our lives, not only as an actor, as a comedian, as a person, and to have that gift of gab. Many people wish they could express themselves and not monitor what they say and not be afraid to say things that maybe you’re off the cuff. He was someone who could say anything. He could do different accents. He was a master of dialects. He had a tremendous amount of talent and although many people appreciated him, I don’t think he was appreciated enough.
What would you ask him?
I might ask him to do some of those dialects because I can tell you as a coach, I talk to a lot of people who speak different languages and it’s useful for me to be able to emulate what they’re doing because I can’t hear the difference. They know they are doing something different. Technically, you can tell them you’re making your art differently for example, but they can’t do what I’m doing and I can’t do what they’re doing. I would ask Robin if he could give some of those, “Let’s do a Scottish accent.” There are many accents in Scotland, but to be able to do various English accents, British accents, do a French person speaking English, or to do a German person speaking English. It could be interesting to hear him and see how he does it on the fly with almost without preparation or thought.
That would be so much fun. I love that and one of the reasons why I wanted to interview you was because you and I are both in the business of helping people be heard and understood in business. How you speak is important. Why is American Speak the language we should be able to communicate in?
Many people don’t think about the fact that although English is a world language, we all speak it differently all over the world. People in China, India and every country in the world all speak English. We use it as a lingua franca, which is a common language people use to communicate in business or politics. We use it for that. It used to be French back in the seventeenth century which I talked about in the book, so it’s useful to have a lingua franca.American English is an easier way for people to communicate. It is also fast becoming a standard in many industries. Click To Tweet
The problem is we seem to have standardized on British English, which sounds okay if we all standardized on that. However, first of all, most of us don’t know we’re speaking British English. When I say British English, that means a lot of different things to a lot of people. I’m not talking about a specific dialect of British English, there are many but simply British vowels are articulated, for example, quite differently from American vowels. We tend to use our jaws. We have these long lax sounds and how that can show up for an American watching a British film, which I’ve done on occasion.
When I’m watching it, I find that I have to keep stopping and replaying it because it’s coming at me too fast. It’s not because I don’t understand the words. I usually get it the 2nd or 3rd, but it’s coming at me so fast, that I’m not hearing it. That’s a commonality non-native speakers deal with. They’re often told that they speak too fast and they often ask me, “How do I slow myself down?” They attempt to talk more slowly.
Speaking British English contributes to these issues a lot around tension because there’s tension to create the lip sounds of a British accent. There is less tension in an American accent. Although many of us still have jaw issues. TMJ is universal. However, allowing the jaw to drop and having a more relaxed modality of speech in all your vowels allows you to be more well understood. What I put forth in the book is maybe speaking American English might be an easier way for people to communicate. That’s one side of it. The other side of it is a lot of people use American English as a standard such as aviation and technology. There are already areas where people use American English as the standard.
Are you saying that the pace of British English is naturally faster than the pace of American English?
I believe so. What’s most noticeable in that pace is the pitch change. The British, along with other accents that are out there, for example Indian speakers tend to have a lot of pitch change inside of vowels, a melody inside the vowel. I can’t do all of those accents. I can show you in a Southern one, and this is a fake Southern accent but if I talk like that, I’m changing pitch within my vowel. My vowel is changing pitch. Whereas in a standard dialect, we tend to go longer and flatter, which is why I use a band when I teach American English. We tend to go longer and flatter for that more neutral accent that you might hear on television or from a newscaster, for example.
There was something you said in the book, which I thought, “Why did I never figure this one out?” It’s not so much about slowing down the way you speak as elongating the vowels. Can you talk a little bit about that and why that’s hard for someone who hasn’t grown up speaking standard American English?
That’s one of the main things that I teach. That is most languages of the world. I would say almost all languages of the world are syllable-timed. Not every language has syllables, so it might be for a timed or whatever they divide their language into but the idea is that every element of their language is about the same length. In most languages, if you were to speak the bandwidth move like this as you speak, everything would be equal length. Have you noticed as I’m emulating this in English, I’m speeding up a little bit? I’m formulating equal length syllables.
In American English, only some of the syllables are a little bit longer and that’s slowing me down by doing that. You have to know which words to make longer, how to do it, where to do it, and when to do it. That’s part of the learning. It is about making vowels longer but it’s a little more complex. It’s also about which syllables are longer, which words are longer and how to do it naturally, even without the band.
Syllable length is key, and I like to call it syllables instead of vowels only because there are vowels in unstressed syllables. What I mean by that is a commonly mispronounced word is the word development. There are a couple of reasons it could be mispronounced, partly because in some parts of the world, it’s pronounced differently. It’s not wrong. That’s the way they say it but in American English, we have to have one primary syllable that’s always longer. In the word development, it’s that second syllable.If you have a thick accent, it is very important to invest on your clarity of language so that people can really understand you. Click To Tweet
Not only is it that you have to know which syllable to stress you have to have enough breath to be able to stress it without anxiety and without throat seizing. One of the first things I noticed in non-native speakers is the throat seizing and squeezing muscles when they try to elongate a syllable because they’re not used to doing that. Part of it is knowing to stretch the syllable, part of it is knowing which syllables in which words and where and how to make a good choice when you’re speaking, without having to think about it too much and how not to cease here. How to breathe and allow the sounds to get longer.
It’s one of the things that I’ve often been interested in when I was first learning Italian. I noticed that in Italian, usually it’s the second to last syllable that is emphasized. Although sometimes there are words where it’s the third to last syllable and you have to learn the exceptions. That is often the case in American English at least. I wonder how much the Italian immigrants shaped the way English is spoken in America. For instance, when I went to Japan. I studied Japanese for a while in the 1980s and I had a sister who lived there for three years. I was going to learn about Japan, darn it, I didn’t get terribly far, but I could say things I couldn’t always understand what they answered because I only had five verbs. I realized in reading your book that I was probably Americanizing Hiroshima and it’s more even when it’s spoken in Japanese.
The Japanese words I love to use with all people because we all eat Japanese food at some point or at least try it and those are words like sushi. Most Americans feel comfortable saying sushi and we have to shorten one of the syllables to say it and even more noticeable if you ordered the raw fish sashimi, which a Japanese person tells me I’m a little closer when I say sashimi with equal length.
This is useful to know. If you are reading this and going, “What on earth are they talking about?” The reason why this matters is if you are communicating and people cannot hear you, they cannot understand you, then they’ll tune you out. They’ll make value judgments about whether you are worth listening to or not. One of the things I do with my clients often is if they have an accent, I will work with them on getting the key phrases understandable. For a Japanese client, I worked out an elevator pitch for her that had no Rs and no Ls because she could not do it. I’m wondering how you would approach making sure that your key phrases are understandable.
I definitely think at times I’m given a client who doesn’t have enough time to work with me. They tell me they have a keynote speech and they’re giving it tomorrow morning. In that case, I totally understand working with a band and hitting the key phrases but if you’re avoiding every L and every R, which I know some people are, it’s important to figure out what’s going on there. If it’s early childhood learning, sometimes you can learn by using devices not only the band. I also use a rubber band for breath so in other words, if you have a sound like, breath the TH sound will cause the tissue to move. If it’s not moving, you’re not projecting the TH. You might be saying, “Brett,” like the man’s name. If you said, for example, “Brett has bad breath.” You can see the movement.
I would certainly revisit with a Japanese client all those Ls and Rs because we tend to lump them together as, “I have a problem with L and R.” We don’t realize that there are light and dark Ls and there is an R in combination with an L before or after. With most of my Japanese clients, I find that there are certain words they can’t say well. There are other Ls and Rs that they can say quite well and it’s learning which ones are challenging in which combinations and it’s different for everybody depending on when the brain learned those sounds. We often call it fossilization, where there are certain sounds that they can’t say. While it may be useful in the short-term, to simply work on key phrases it’s important if your goal is to become a communicator to address those challenges, and go there and figure out what’s going on for you.
I would absolutely say learning to speak clearly is an art in itself. This is not something that I teach specifically. If there was someone who has a thick accent but needs to be understood in English, I would send them to Rebecca for that training, mostly what I’m doing is in the context of a presentation. You’re giving a speech at a conference. I had a Vietnamese client who spoke very fast. She spoke very fast and choppy. We spent a lot of time getting her key phrases to slow her down because she was going to do a big speech at a big visible event and getting her to slow down on the key places. You hadn’t written your book yet, Rebecca. If you’d written your book a couple of years ago, I probably could have helped her better. Let me ask you about articulation. Sometimes we talk about enunciation or speaking clearly. That seems like that’s one of the main tools that you use.
It’s extremely important. Some people want to work on their speech in order to fit in with the community for a variety of reasons. Other people want to work on diction and clarity. Some people aren’t even aware that they’re mispronouncing words. There’s a whole range out there, but definitely diction there are a couple of areas that are affected. One of them is muscle movement. For example, if you can’t lift your lip and show your front teeth, I’ve had clients ask me, “Why do Americans show their front teeth so much?” We do that because it’s part of our articulation pattern.
If you drop your lip and talk like this, you hear immediately how muffled or I’m mumbling but I might not sound that way if I was speaking Tamil, Gujarati, or some other language that might sound great. Learning to use the muscles differently is a big piece of diction and also what you were saying earlier about someone sounding abrupt or talking fast in an abrupt way. It can be a carryover pattern from another language that can be addressed to breath patterns. I like to call it body energies. They address this in the Lessac Method, where they talk about being radiant or jumping in or being buoyant, which is more a breathy quality. There is a third quality. There’s buoyant, radiance and I can’t think of the third quality.
Who’s talking about this?
The Lessac Method. Arthur Lessac passed away but he wrote some beautiful books in body dynamics. It’s one of my favorites. A lot of them are out of print, but one is used in colleges all over the US. You have to get a PDF of it or maybe it’s a Kindle by now. This was pre-Kindle days. The third one is potency. Potency makes your voice stronger, which means power. It comes from that low abdominal area, so I’m getting a little throaty and a little more powerful. For me, I also use the Alexander Technique, I’m eclectic and now what I’m doing is accessing my pelvic floor. As I breathe and access the pelvic floor, my pitch tends to drop a bit. You could probably do it without dropping your pitch as much, but it does give you more of a potent sound if that’s what you’re after.
I spent a lot of time in Europe. I live half the year in the Austrian Alps, where the local dialect is much in the back of the throat. One of the things that an American friend who lives there told me is, “You need to move the voice to the front the speaking through a mask, the bones around your nose and cheeks.” It helps to smile. Americans have learned how to do that because we’re taught to smile. The bit you were saying about showing the teeth as part of the articulation pattern. I’m aware of how I’m smiling now. I have to not look at my face here or I’m going to notice the way I’m doing that. How do you deal with somebody who grew up in a language that is produced in the back of the throat, for instance?
Awareness is the first step. I had a client ask me that, “Is that awareness or is it using learning to use muscles differently?” It’s both. You can’t change it if you’re not aware you’re doing it. Spending a lot of time in the awareness phase, there are different ways to speak in the back of your throat. I was working with a man from India who was speaking like this and almost sounded like Mafioso. It could be a terrifying sound versus speaking from the originating sounds in the back. You could originate sounds in the back. It’s becoming aware of exactly how you’re articulating from a variety of different perspectives, which muscles you’re using, how you’re breathing. That’s a whole process in itself.
What I noticed is most people want to jump to the solution so they want to immediately start speaking with an American accent, “Teach me the vowels. Teach me how to do it.” They don’t want to spend a lot of time noticing what they already do, and how they could migrate it or change it slightly, which would behoove them because changing things, maybe 10% is a more natural way of sounding, not trying to sound American, but changing how you do things slightly. I teach back of the mouth breathing which I learned from some opera singers, and I believe you have an opera background.
This was the Jo Estill Method, which was designed by a speech pathologist but now taught by opera singers all over the world and others. One of the exercises they had us doing in the class was to open your mouth and laugh in the back obnoxiously. When we do that, we tend to squeeze the back of our neck, which I learned from the Alexander method is something to do. The challenge is how you teach this over Zoom. What I’ve found, and I’ve done this with hundreds of people now is that when you release the back of the neck, if you put your hand here, you can feel the squeeze happening, and your eyes go up. The minute someone does this, I know that they’re squeezing the back of their neck, so the idea is to release the back of the neck, your hand can be here as a cue. Your eyes are forward, you drop the jaw, and laugh without squeezing, and the breath doesn’t stop at that point.
One of the things that people forget is that speaking is a physical act. You have to train the muscles, your breathing muscles, you have to train your lips, teeth and tongue to say things that are unusual. When I think about how long it took me to be able to rattle off an international opera director and presentation skills trainer. I had to train my lips and tongue to say that. It’s a thing to remember that this is a physical act and therefore, it is worth practicing as you practice anything that your body has to do.
A thing that you mentioned in your book about figuring out the difference between your native language and American English. If you can’t hear it, it’s being able to hear and repeat music. That’s what Robin Williams does. He was a great mimic. If you can learn by ear, and there are a lot of people who can’t do that, but you had something about speaking in a fake American accent. I thought that was a brilliant technique. Give us this tip. How can we use this? I thought it was brilliant.
I love this tip. It’s not mine. This tip came from the acting community. I took a class with actors, so I tried every technique before I did my own stuff. What they teach actors is you don’t have a lot of time to learn a new accent. You can’t spend the next ten years, maybe you have a role starting next month. What you do is you get a text, for example, in your language. You could do it with any language, but a text is always nice. You read it aloud as if you’re an American learning the language. I have a text in front of me in Japanese, Hebrew, French or whatever the language that the person speaks is, and as I speak my own native tongue, I read it with a perceived American accent.
“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, wie treu sind deine blätter.”
It’s useful because, for whatever reason, the brain is better able to hear the accent in your native tongue and fake it than it is to learn another language in the native accent to use your own language and hear that foreignness to it and emulate it. Whatever they’re doing, when they do it, I find the things that sound American, the things they’re doing well and I say, “That sound you made, can you put that in this American word?” Sometimes they say it correctly for the first time after the exercise.
This is amazing and there was one other thing I wanted to ask you about. I grew up with languages. I started speaking French when I was in grade school and when I spent 30 years in the opera community. There was an embarrassment about the American R. Even the singers who are singing in French which has the R at the back of the throat, in order to sing you move the R to the front of the mouth so you can understand it. The joke always is the American who’s got this horrible big R in the back of it, but you like the American R. I had 30 years of being embarrassed about having an American R. Talk to me about why you have a whole chapter about the letter R.
A wonderful thing to think about. There’s a lot of subjectivity around accents, whether they’re strong or not and I have some examples in the book of one person who thinks it’s strong from their perspective, someone else doesn’t. We all have different R sounds or we have no R sound at all in some languages, which makes it more challenging. Not having an R sound at all, in your first language is a problem because so many of our words have Rs in them that eligibility will suffer. For example, you have an Indian R, French R or an Italian R, it can sound beautiful to people. Often someone will say, “You have a gorgeous accent. Don’t change it.” There’s this question of, “Do I need to work on it or not?” I would argue that if you work on your vowels and there’s a lot of clarity in your vowels and your syllable length, which we talked about earlier with the band syllable length, then you could go ahead and use your R from your first language if it works for you. It does work for some people.
The downside to doing that is that if I’m using a different R, it’s probably made in a different location in my mouth that the American sounds are not made in. We make our R the way we do for a reason. Our resting position is in the middle of our mouth and you can test that by making a hesitation sound. If you’re hesitating in American English, you end up with “uhh.” Some people say, “Eh or ah.” If you’re saying something different when you hesitate, that tells you where your resting position is.
If your resting position is in the front and you’re making an error in the front, which a lot of people are, then you’re going to get tired all day with a stiff jaw potentially by pulling your tongue back to make vowels and pulling it forward. You’re pulling it back to say, “Up,” which is our schwa sound, and pulling it forward to going, “Rr.” You might want to make your nice trilled R that could make you tired and even give you a headache by the end of the day. I share some of those experiences in the book as well.
Rebecca, this has been awesome, amazing and exciting. There is so much that’s important about how we produce language that people can hear. The whole idea is to be understood because if people can’t understand you, they tune you out. This is an important tool. How can we find out more about you?
My website is the best place, EnglishByTheHour.com. That’s where I put all my documentation and links, that’s probably the best source. The other one would be my YouTube channel. You can type in my name Rebecca Linquist. Linquist the Linguist is how you can remember me. I have about over 100 free videos on YouTube.
I would think that the videos would be incredibly important so you can get an idea. There’s so much more than you have to hear and try. That is fascinating. Thank you so much. The other thing I would say is if you have a thick accent, this is an important investment for your career to make sure that people can hear you. Work with someone like Rebecca to get the clarity of language, so people can understand you and once they understand you, you can make an impact.
Thank you so much, Rebecca Linquist. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s so much fun to talk about language and how language works. Before we go, let me remind you that if you are interested in finding out how presentation skills can help your career, go to our free assessment, SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. There you could see where you are strong and where you might need to improve your presentation skills in order to get the results that you want. Thank you so much, Rebecca Linquist. I’ll see you on the next one.
- Rebecca Linquist
- American Speak
- YouTube channel – Rebecca Linquist
About Rebecca Linquist
Rebecca Linquist is a Speech, Voice, Accent & Presence Coach who specializes in helping foreign-born executives and non-native speakers of American English bridge the gap to become dynamic, authentic, inspired communicators and excel in their field of choice in a global arena. Rebecca has worked as a senior manager, an educator, a trainer, and a public speaker in a variety of roles and has coached \ in the Silicon Valley of northern CA for the last 20 years.
She combines insights into articulation patterns, pronunciation issues, voice quality challenges, and executive presence harvesting in her work.
She recently authored the book “American’ Speech”, which delves into these topics and discusses how American English might make a better “lingua franca” than British English.