English: Overcoming an Accent

By Heather Hudson

Alex Morales and his young son were raking a blanket of colourful autumn leaves when their next-door-neighbour stopped by to welcome them to the community. As the two adults introduced themselves and chatted about their children, the neighbour suddenly remarked, "Oh! You have an accent."

Morales froze. Bowing his head, he went back to his gardening, unwilling to continue the conversation. Little did his neighbour know that pointing out his accent was like mocking a "horrible disfigurement".

Decades later, Morales chuckles as he recalls the incident. "I was too sensitive," he says.

But if you can relate to his anxiety about an accent, you're not alone.
In fact, Morales says pronunciation is foremost in the minds of the hundreds of newcomers he sees each year as manager of COSTI's Corvetti Education Centre, an organization that offers educational, social and employment services to immigrants in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

The progressive English language courses COSTI and other organizations offer are key to learning how to communicate, but Morales emphasizes that it takes time and much practice to truly conquer the challenge of speaking fluently.

Lydia Aiello, an English as a second language (ESL) teacher and author, agrees. She says overcoming an accent is one of the final - and most difficult steps - of fully integrating into Canadian society. The ability to speak clearly and confidently can make the difference between simply living in Canada and making it your home.

"Many newcomers struggle to pronounce English words well after they can read and understand what people are saying. Unfortunately, it's not enough to just know the language," she says. "To really be a part of Canada - whether that means getting a job, buying food at the market or participating in the community - other people must be able to understand you."

Any newcomer will tell you that it's tough to pronounce sounds that feel foreign in your mouth. It's not just about learning new vocabulary. Sometimes it requires retraining the way you use your tongue, teeth and jaw muscles.

For example, Aiello points out, Vietnamese words don't end with consonants, making learning to finish all those harsh English words especially difficult. Tone and rhythm also differ greatly among languages. It can take a long time - and a lot of practice - to learn where to put the emphasis on syllables and use your voice to express yourself.

Fortunately, there are a number of strategies you can use in your day-to-day living to help you overcome your accent and feel more confident speaking English.
Revisit your childhood

Take a trip back in time and recall the way you learned your native language. As a baby, you listened to people speak and as a toddler you mimicked these words. Aiello suggests taking the same approach as an adult in Canada. Listen to the way people speak in the mall, on the bus or at the grocery store. Pay attention to where the emphasis is and how the rhythm of their words flows.

Educate yourself

Take an ESL class. Most programs first offer assessments to determine your competency and help you define your goals, from simply being able to communicate with others to preparing for college or university.

There are even pronunciation classes offered by various organizations in the GTA, including the one Aiello teaches at the Centre for Education and Training in Brampton. The Toronto District School Board and COSTI also offer classes in many locations across the GTA.

Aiello has even written a book called Word PALS (Pronunciation and Listening Skills) for ESL teachers and students. Accompanied by three CDs, the book is full of self-guided lessons on how to articulate in English.

Listen, listen, listen

Watch English movies and television and listen to talk radio, paying attention to the way words are pronounced. Then repeat them. Visit your local library and take out books on tape to listen for clear enunciation. You can stop the tape at any time to repeat difficult words.

Morales says when he first came to Canada he would read articles from the newspaper into his tape recorder to perfect his pronunciation. When he would replay the tape, he was horrified at his mangled command of the language. It was only with time and practice that his English improved.

Practice makes perfect

Find a Canadian neighbour or friend who will speak English with you and gently correct your pronunciation when it's wrong.

Or, join a program like CultureLink's English Conversation Circles, which are offered in nine locations across the city. Each weekly meeting offers a new topic and a chance to speak in English. Not only will you be able to practice your pronunciation, you'll meet new people and participate in the community.

Program manager Safia Shire says she's seen people come to the first meeting of a circle too shy to say even two words. Six months later they're speaking freely and comfortably in English.

Clearly, practice is at the heart of learning to speak fluently.

"As you speak more freely, you will relax and feel more at ease in the company of new people. This confidence is like a tonic to your self-esteem and will make your experience in Canada richer in all aspects," advises Morales.

Currently a freelance feature and news writer for diverse array of publications, including Active Woman Canada, Topical, Public Sector Management, and Government Purchasing Guide, Heather Hudson has developed, customized, instructed and evaluated plain-writing writing workshops for the Government of Ontario, Ryerson University and many other clients.


COSTI operates five employment and training centres throughout Metro Toronto and York region, six ESL training centres, a centre for foreign trained professional and tradespeople and much more. For more information, visit www.costi.org or call 416-534-7400.

The Centre for Language Training and Assessment offers competitive courses of study that prepare learners to be effective communicators in English. To learn more about their program, visit www.clta.on.ca or call 905-949-0049.

CultureLink offers a variety of programs to help newcomers settle in Toronto. To find out about the English conversation circles, visit www.culturelink.net or call 416-588-6288.

For more information on Lydia Aiello's book, Word PALS (Pronunciation and Listening Skills) and her pronunciation classes, call the North Centre for Education and Training in Brampton at 905-791-6700.