Accent modification is like ballroom dancing for the tongue

A while back, when I was studying ballroom dancing, the teacher was saying to do this, do that, remember this, remember that, and I thought: learning to pronounce differently is like ballroom dancing for the tongue! There were so many things to remember at once, different and unfamiliar movements to coordinate, actions that I could not understand or feel. But after practicing and repeating the movements for a while, gradually things started to fall in place and I started to be more comfortable. But within months of stopping, I lost most of what I had learned.

Learning how to use our body or our voice in a different way than we usually do takes practice and lots of repetition. And once we have established a bit of a rhythm, then we need to constantly reinforce it until it is deeply rooted. These changes will take longer for some behaviours than others and longer for some people than others. But across the board, daily practice over a long period of time is easiest when we establish a habit of practice and rely less on discipline.

Repetition is key to creating habitual behaviours

When we repeat something, we begin to create new neural pathways. These connections will strengthen over time, like a well-worn path. It does not matter if it’s true or not, right or wrong – repetition will create the pathway and allow you to easily choose that route. To create new neural pathways, we must do something different; it is uncomfortable but eventually, through repetition, it becomes comfortable. It is like a program that runs – we do not think about it once it’s been rehearsed enough.

Habits take at least 2 months to consolidate

To create a habit of speech, it helps to create a habit of practice. According to recent research, it takes an average of 66 days to make a habit automatic, in contrast to the commonly believed idea of 21 days. And remember, this is an average which varies considerably depending upon your goals and context.

To optimize your chances of success, it is important to establish one habit at a time, make it very doable and never miss more than one day in a row. To do this, making the habit small will make it easier to maintain.

What are some ways we can begin to integrate daily practice into our routine and not give the excuse that we were too busy to do the homework? What are some examples of ways to practice pronunciation in small habitual chunks?

  • Integrate a daily 5-minute morning practice regardless of the other times dedicated to study outside of class. Choose a focus, put a sticky up in the bathroom beside the mirror, and practice immediately after you brush your teeth.
  • Put stickies up around your house and on your computer. If you are practicing T for example, you could post “toilet,” “table,” “counter,” “time,” “toaster,” etc. Every time you see the stickie, play with the T and make short phrases and sentences using the words (or others you think of) so that you begin to practice maintaining the sound of the T and thinking at the same time.

Mental rehearsal is almost equivalent to physical rehearsal

If we mentally rehearse something with focus, our brain and body are affected to almost the same degree as if we had physically rehearsed. We remember what it is like to do the activity, physically, step by step, and this creates a physical and mental memory, strengthening the neural pathways. We can mentally rehearse to practice a skill (such as grammar or pronunciation) which can be very useful when we feel pressed for time.

  • When you are on the bus or train, mentally rehearse what you are learning. Do the same as you would do out loud or on paper.

Remember, the first step is to learn the movement or the structure. Once that becomes easier, start to use your brain to create contexts and content based on your life to use the pronunciation or structure. This is the crucial step towards integrating the changes into your daily life.