Monday, August 10, 2015

New Approach to Improve My American Accent

Good Sunday evening from Singapore. It’s been literally ages since my last update on this blog. It feels great to be back!

This is just to give you a quick update on what I have been doing.

I am still doing a lot of language learning day in and day out, but recently I haven’t been living up to my nickname of “Uncle Polyglot,” in the sense that I’ve been focusing on English only, at the expense of the other foreign languages, such as French and Chinese.

In today’s blog post I’ll just write about what I’ve been doing in terms of improving my English pronunciation.

Up until now I have written many blog posts here concerning my quest for a perfect American English accent. Regrettably, I have yet to master a satisfactory accent, despite my intermittent efforts to Americanize my speech over the past few years. To be fair, I think I have made some progress, but I am still far from being able to pass myself off as a native speaker.

Recently, however, I got hugely inspired by a blog by a Japanese guy named George Cooney (国井仗司 in Japanese, not to be mistaken with the erstwhile ER actor) where he uploads his voice recordings of novel passages in English, presumably for the purpose of improving his own English pronunciation.

Here is the link to the blog:

英語で朗読! - 国井仗司 Giving Voice to the Written Word George Cooney's Oral Interpretations of Old and New Literature

As I am not a native speaker of English I cannot assess with utmost certainty the authenticity of his English accent, but to my untrained ear his British accent sounds quite spot on, to the point that I would probably mistake him for an Englishman if I spoke to him on the phone.

According to his self-introduction, he hasn’t received any professional coaching on English pronunciation, which makes it all the more remarkable that he can sound like a native speaker.

What I really found to be intriguing was that, when he recorded his readings of novel passages, he didn’t do it by imitating the audiobooks of these novels. Instead, he reads aloud these passages according to his own idea of what the correct British accent should sound like.

He accomplishes it by listening to his own recording very closely for any deficiencies in pronunciation, thereby fine-tuning his accent bit by bit until he reasonably sounds like a native. It is also worthy to note that regardless of whether the novel is British or American, he invariably reads the passages with his signature British accent.

I’ve found his approach to be unique and interesting, and I’ve decided to give it a try myself. As my personal preference is American English, I will stick to an American accent for now.

I read aloud a passage in English and record my own voice with my IC recorder for analysis. I’ve already done a few voice recording sessions, and so far I've found it a lot of fun to listen to and analyze my own voice.

I agree with him that at my current level of English, it’s no longer necessary to listen to a sample recording by an American voice actor for imitation.

As I’ve watched tons of American movies and television shows in my life, I already know what an American accent sounds like, so I shouldn’t waste my time trying to imitate one particular voice actor, whose vocal characteristics might be completely different from mine and therefore impractical to model my speech on. Rather, I should follow my general mental image of what a typical American accent sounds like, such that I can eventually Americanize my speech in a way that best suits my own voice.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense to the readers of this blog, but I hope to be able to prove myself right in the coming months. As the proof of the pudding is in the eating, I’ll be uploading my own voice recordings here so you can see it for yourself. :-)

Wish you all a very nice week ahead!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Have a Confession to Make...

Hello again from Singapore!

I've had a crazy week last week workload-wise and couldn't get much studying done, to my great dismay.  As I'm not yet in the study mode I think I'll take it easy for the rest of the weekend.

Anyway, I'm writing this post to make a little confession.

For a self-professed polyglot who has been learning multiple languages for decades, I am not fluent in any of the languages that I speak, including Japanese, my mother tongue.

The primary issue that I'm having is that, for some unknown reason, I just cannot speak continuously for an extended period of time in whatever language I speak, because I always need to stop to think about what to say next when I'm done with my current sentence.

This particular inability in my speech does not affect me negatively at all on most occasions, whether be it in private life or at work, as I can carry a conversation with my colleagues and clients with perfect ease, and I can always get things done with my choppy sentences.  Furthermore, when I write emails at the office, I often get commended on my writing style for its organized structure and clarity. 

However, when I'm required to do a presentation for a few minutes where I have to speak continuously without anybody else cutting in, I always have great difficulty.  I don't have a stuttering problem, but I just cannot talk at length with a smooth continuous flow of speech, so normally what I do is to pre-script my speech and recite it verbatim in front of my audience, rendering it sounding somewhat labored and unnatural.

For the record, all of my YouTube videos that I've uploaded so far had been pre-scripted and rehearsed umpteen times before uploading; there is no way that I could have improvised those speeches.

Frankly, I have no idea as to what is causing this deficiency (I know that "deficiency" might be too strong a word for this, but I don't know how else to put it).  I know that it has nothing to do with the size of my vocabulary, because I've seen children of preschool age expressing themselves far more eloquently than I do with their limited vocabulary.  If you let them be, they can talk their heads off.

Could it be that I have some mental blocks which prevent me from expressing myself freely, by vocalizing whatever that pops into my mind?  I know that I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and I feel really uncomfortable every time I say a sentence that is incoherent or grammatically unsound, and I try to avoid it happening on some subconscious level, thereby preventing my speech from flowing in a smooth manner.

Whatever the cause may be, I'd like to overcome it with lots of practice. 

What I have been doing recently is to engage in a lot of self-talk.  I think having monologue sessions is an extremely effective method for building up one's fluency in a foreign language, sometimes even more so than having conversations with native speakers,  as the learner can monopolize the time all to himself, thereby maximizing the opportunity for actually speaking the language. 

Also, as I've already mentioned in my previous post, whenever I do self-talk, I always make a point of listening to my own voice with an IC recorder, in order to objectively assess my voice.  I listen out for places in my speech where I sound different from native English speakers, and I try to rectify these differences on the spot by repeating them again and again.

I wouldn't mind seeking some professional help as regards my difficulty in speech, but I have yet to find a training coach who can give me effective guidance.  In the meantime I will continue to do my own explorations for ways to enhance my speech.

Anyway, there you have it, my very first confession on this blog.  Thank you all for reading.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend.  Talk to you again soon!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Do I Need Professional Voice Lessons?

I'd like to continue on with the topic of improving my American English accent.

Once again I need to refer to the Eigonodo method which has had a tremendous impact on the way I vocalize when I speak English.

This method has made me realize that, while it's important to learn how to shape the mouth and where to place the tongue to correctly pronounce the vowels and consonants, it's equally important to understand the mechanism whereby native English sounds are generated.
Native speakers of English tend to utilize their throat much more extensively than Japanese people, and their vocalization usually involves a lot of air-flow vis-à-vis the Japanese, rendering their voice relatively deep-sounding and well-rounded.

Having learned this method, I can now say with utmost certainty that, without the right vocalization, one will never be able to sound like a native speaker no matter how he shapes his mouth to imitate the native sounds.

This matter of vocalization has really got me thinking lately.  I've been thinking, if I really want to switch from the Japanese way of vocalizing to the English one, there is no way that I will do this by half measures, lest I end up sounding unnatural and unconvincing.  I'd much rather go the whole hog and get the right vocalization method completely down pat, so that whenever I open my mouth to speak English, I'll be able to vocalize the right way on automatic pilot.

I am even contemplating whether I should seek some professional help to improve my vocalization.  The way things stand now, I have a very muffled voice that doesn't carry well, which I think gives the impression of lacking confidence to some people.  I've seen some YouTube video clips on this subject, and found that quite a few of them mention diaphragmatic breathing as an effective way to improve vocalization.  The problem is, I don't believe that this kind of breathing skill can be self-taught, simply by reading reference books or by watching YouTube videos, etc, hence the need for some private tutoring sessions.

Regardless of whether or not I will take professional voice lessons, I will continue to explore this matter of vocalization for the time being.  I will keep you posted on my new findings as I go along in my quest for perfect American English pronunciation.

Wish you all a nice new week ahead.  Talk to you again soon!

Monday, August 27, 2012

My Quest for Perfect American Accent Continues!

Good evening from Singapore!

It's been ages since I last wrote on this blog.

Tonight I've decided to come back here for a little update as I kind of missed blogging in English, and wanted to get back the feel of writing for my international readers.

The purpose of this post is to announce that I've recently gotten serious again in improving my English pronunciation, after a hiatus of several months during which I was engaged in other studies.

Those of you who have been following me on this blog or on my YouTube channel will doubtless know that I have been struggling to master an American accent for a long, long time.

Compared to my relative success in picking up a natural Mandarin accent, my English accent obviously leaves a lot to be desired.

My theory for the cause of this discrepancy is that I was fortunate enough to learn Chinese with a private tutor from China at a very young age (I was 9 when I first started), while I didn't have much chance to converse directly with native English speakers until I was in college, by which time my ability to imitate and replicate foreign speech had come down drastically.

In spite of this disadvantage, I've always been harboring a desire to master English to a very high level of proficiency, and after decades of hard work, as far as reading and writing English goes, I have reached a level that I find somewhat satisfactory. 

Mastering correct pronunciation, however, has proven to be a much more difficult task.

In the hope of mastering flawless American speech, I have listened to tons of language-learning tapes and CDs, and watched dozens of Hollywood movies and hundreds of hours of American television newscasts, but I just couldn't completely get rid of that trace of foreignness from my accent.

A turning point came last fall when I came across the Eigonodo method (as elaborated in my previous blog post here).  This method gave me a completely new perspective on how I should vocalize when speaking English, and since then I have made great progress in my pronunciation, especially in terms of generating the deep, well-rounded sounds which characterize the speech of native American English speakers.

Granted, this method only covers certain aspects of American English pronunciation, and for me there are still loads of loose ends to tie up before I can claim mastery of an accurate American accent, if that day ever comes, that is.

My primary method to address these pronunciation issues is to engage in a lot of self-talk, while at the same time I record my voice with my IC recorder.  I make a point of listening very closely to the recording, and take the time to analyze my accent in microscopic detail in order to correctly identify my problem areas. 

Whenever I come across some words and phrases that I can't pronounce correctly the first time around, I would repeat them again and again until I can get them right.  So far I've had some trouble trying to pronounce such words and phrases as "Italy",  "with each other", etc. 

I feel like a Hollywood actor trying to perfect his diction, and contrary to what some people may think, I find this practice of rectifying my speech with surgical precision quite fun and pleasurable.  I try to spend about 45 minutes at one sitting, but my practice sessions can easily stretch longer than 1 hour,  as I get so hooked and find it difficult to end the session cold turkey.

As soon as I make some more progress in accent reduction, I plan to upload a new video on my YouTube channel to demonstrate what I have achieved.  I'm turning 39 this coming October, and I want to show it to my viewers that it's still possible for a middle-aged guy like me to continually improve his accent in a foreign language.  I promise it'll be a hugely inspirational video, so please keep a lookout!

Wish you all a nice new week ahead.  Talk to you again soon!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My New French Learning Method!

Happy Chinese New Year from Singapore!

I'm having two days off from work due to Chinese New Year holidays.

Being a non-Chinese, I don't celebrate CNY, so I'm spending my holidays holed up in my apartment, surfing the net, studying for the CFA Level II exam (which I will be taking this coming June), or otherwise just taking it easy.

The purpose of today's blog post is to share with you my thoughts on how we can boost the efficiency of language learning, with particular reference to growing our vocabulary.

The way I see it, there are two main pillars of what helps us expand our vocabulary in a foreign language, which are:

1) Reinforcement of old knowledge by means of revision and repetition;
2) Integration of new knowledge by means of importing fresh content into my study materials.

Both of the above are vitally important. If you want to achieve optimum results for a given amount of time and effort, you need to incorporate both activities into your daily learning routine, and avoid at all costs neglecting one activity in favor of the other.

Here is one example of how I put into practice the incorporation of the two main pillars mentioned above.

Presently, my daily French learning routine consists of watching French television news podcasts on my iPhone/iPad and learning the new words and phrases that appear in each podcast.

It's an extremely simple process, but it works well so long as I mechanically follow the rules below that I've set for myself:

Rule # 1: I will always keep three consecutive episodes in my library, no more and no less.

Rule # 2: When I actually get down to studying French, I will make sure to watch the three episodes back-to-back, in one sitting, always starting from the oldest episode first. Each episode averages about 15 minutes, adding up to a total of about 45 minutes. Given my busy schedule, this is about the utmost that I can manage per day.

Rule # 3: Upon completing each sitting of three consecutive episodes, I will make sure to download a new episode and delete the oldest one, thereby ensuring that the total number of episodes will remain unchanged, as mandated by Rule # 1.

This methodology works because it systematically ensures that I watch each episode three times before it gets deleted from the iPhone, thereby making certain that enough repetition of the same vocabulary words takes place, in order for them to be etched into memory.

In fact, repetition of the same words also occurs in watching consecutive episodes, because some news stories develop over the course of a few days (e.g. murder investigations, major accidents, natural disasters, etc.) and consequently the same subject matters might appear in the newscast over and over again.

Also, by constantly importing the new episode and deleting the old episode as mentioned in Rule # 3, I make sure that I come into contact with some fresh content everyday, thereby making it possible for new words and phrases to be incorporated into my vocabulary. Otherwise, I will be stuck with the same old content, and my vocabulary will soon stop growing.

The reason why I devised this learning method is because of my lazy personality. I'm a creature of habit, and I detest having to constantly look for some new innovative ways to enlarge my vocabulary. For one thing, it's extremely tiring, and for another, the results can be unstable at best, with no guarantee whatsoever of solid, continuous growth of knowledge.

By comfortably following an established routine, I don't even have to think what to do, and yet my French vocabulary keeps growing in a stable and predictable manner.

By the way, when I watch the podcasts, I take down the new words and phrases on a medium-sized flash card (10cm x 15cm, or approx. 4" x 6"), as shown in this picture. I note them down as and when they appear, and look them up immediately with my pocket electronic dictionary.

In order to save time, I normally write down the vocabulary words only, with no explanations, but as long as I give it a quick glance-over at the end of each podcast, I can remember their meanings anyway, mainly because these vocabulary words can be memorized in connection with a particular news story and its related sounds and images, which is far easier than trying to retain them by rote memory.

I believe that with the learning method mentioned above, I'll be able to make great headway in enlarging my French vocabulary this year. My goal is to acquire enough vocabulary such that I can read contemporary French novels without having to consult the dictionary by the end of May next year, which will mark the tenth anniversary of my French learning. It's a daunting task for sure, but I'm absolutely determined to achieve it at all costs!

For those of you who are language-learning enthusiasts like me, I hope you find the content of this blog post somehow useful for your language studies. Should you have better ideas or suggestions, please make sure to let me know!

Wish you all a magnificent Year of Dragon ahead!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Excellent Books to Improve American Accent!

Happy New Year from Singapore!

This post is to let you know about my latest endeavor to improve my American English accent.

Specifically, I would like to introduce to you the 2 excellent books shown herewith on American English pronunciation, which have radically changed my perception of how I should vocalize when I speak English:

英語喉 50のメソッド
(In 50 Lessons You Get Eigo-nodo, hereinafter referred to as the Eigo-nodo book)

(Understanding English Spoken at Machine-gun Speed)

Both of these books are co-authored by Kazuaki Uekawa and Jeana George. They are intended for Japanese learners of English like myself, who are interested in improving their American English accent.

The title of the first book, 英語喉 (Eigo-nodo), is a Japanese term which literally translates as the English throat. As the name suggests, this book explains in detail how we can improve our American English pronunciation by utilizing the throat.

I came across these books quite by accident. About 2 months ago, I was surfing YouTube and checking out some English pronunciation tutorial videos, and came across a video that was done by Kazuaki Uekawa, one of the co-authors of the Eigo-nodo book.

In this video, Mr Uekawa is demonstrating how Japanese learners of English can improve their pronunciation by vocalizing from the throat.

Check this out:

When I watched this video for the first time, I was flabbergasted because, although Mr Uekawa was born and raised in Japan, his American English accent sounded really natural to me, to such an extent that he can pass off for an American guy if you hear him talking on the phone.

I was equally amazed at the content of this video, because the idea of utilizing the throat to improve vocalization had never occurred to me before. Prior to watching this video, I had been trapped by the misconception that achieving a perfect American accent was all about how I shape my mouth and where I place my tongue such that the correct sound would come out, with no heed whatsoever to how we can make use of the throat to vocalize. Talk about being hit by a revelation!

After watching the video, I immediately Googled his name, and ordered the books on the Internet. As soon as I got the books, I began to study them in earnest, and followed the Eigo-nodo method conscientiously for about a month or so.

I'm really glad that I have done this, because I have made great progress in terms of improving my vocalization when I speak English.

There are a lot of detailed techniques that are mentioned in these books, but the gist of it is that, the essential difference in pronunciation between the Americans and the Japanese arises from the fact that the Americans tend to use their throat much more heavily than the Japanese, and as a result, their voice would come out sounding deep and well rounded.

Japanese people, on the other hand, have a tendency to generate the sounds entirely from the mouth, without using the throat, resulting in their voice sounding relatively flat and extremely high-pitched as compared to the Americans, with not so much vibration or resonance taking place in the throat area.

Up until now, I have been practicing this method for about 2 months, and my speech is presently undergoing a huge transformation. My American English accent is beginning to sound much deeper, more convincing and native-like than ever before.

Granted, making use of the throat is only one element that goes into creating a native-like sound, and I still have a lot of fine-tuning to do, as some of my vowels and consonants are definitely off. However, I feel that mastering a throat-based vocalization method is indeed a good starting point, and will form a solid foundation for acquiring a perfect American accent going forward.

I'm planning to upload another video on my YouTube channel for an update as soon as my vocalization stabilizes and gets rock-solid, so please keep a lookout!

In the mean time, I will continue dotting the i's and crossing the t's to refine my accent.

I hereby declare 2012 to be my American Accent Acquisition Year, and will make achieving a perfect American accent my New Year's resolution!

Here's wishing all of you a very prosperous and happy new year ahead!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My First YouTube Video in Cantonese!

Hello again from Singapore!

I am writing this post to let you know that I have just uploaded my lastest video on my YouTube channel.

This time around, I have shot a video in Cantonese for the very first time!

Please check out this video.  If you double-click on it to watch it on YouTube directly, you can choose to view it with English or Cantonese subtitles.

In my previous Mandarin video shot last year, I had already told my viewers that I would upload a video in Cantonese in the not-too-distant future.  I'm delighted that I have finally made good on my promise, despite the fact that it took me more than a year to get around to it.

For those of you who understand Cantonese, I'd appreciate if you could give me your feedback as to whether you find my Cantonese understandable or not. 

Also, if you are a beginner of Cantonese, I'd be delighted if you find this video somehow useful for your Cantonese learning.

Although Mandarin and Cantonese have a lot of things in common, speaking in Cantonese is definitely a big challenge for me, especially in terms of pronunciation, which is far more complicated for me compared to Mandarin.

By the way, I've finally made a decision to take off my sunglasses from this video onwards, as I've learned to become more confident in my pursuit of my biggest passion, which is learning foreign languages.

I've done an extensive search on YouTube and have yet to find any Japanese person doing a language-learning video in Cantonese, so I must be setting some kind of precedent here. It sure feels great!

I hereby promise everyone that I will continue to shoot more videos on YouTube, thereby continually challeging myself to new limits.

Talk to you again soon.  Wish you all a prosperous new week ahead!