If you have had to learn an ESL (English as a second language) in order to live, study or work in the United States, you know it is a task of epic proportions. On the one hand, there is the need to quickly acquire a well functioning level of ease with a completely new language for professional and day to day communication needs. On the other hand, there is the pressure to assimilate with the new social milieu in order to transition into the new life as soon as possible.
Sofia Vergara, the resplendent star of ABC’s hit show “Modern Family” shares your struggle all too well. As her character, Gloria Delgado Pritchett asks her onscreen husband, Jay, ” Do you know how frustrating it is to have to translate everything in my head before I say it? You should try talking in my shoes for one mile.”, and before her husband swoops in to correct her, she adds, “I know what I meant to mean.”
But you may not always know how to express, correctly and clearly what you mean, if you are an ESL (English as a second language) speaker. You may find yourself struggling on two levels. First, you want to be able to be correct grammatically and structurally. Second, you want to produce the correct pronunciation and the accent. And if that is not enough, you also need to listen and comprehend other speakers of the language correctly, few of whom may have the time to patiently help you plod through the interaction with your less than perfect English.
How often has it happened to you as an ESL speaker that you were completely frustrated and lost control of the situation?
It must feel like having lost your voice. And if the struggle of being understood and comprehending is not enough, then there is always the fear of appearing incompetent, slow or just plain uneducated.
Nobody wants that.
Sadly, even research shows that this is the case. Agasta Gluszek and John Dovidio’s paper, “The Way They Speak”, published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology shows that the attitude towards non-native speakers, both immigrants as well as international students is more often than not, negative. Lack of perfect fluency in English is an immediate give away that one is not a native, and the evaluation of the ESL speaker is often biased against them.
So is there no way to deal with the stigma and the loss of credibility that happens when you speak English as a second language with less than perfect skills?
Research proves that it doesn’t have to be a situation of utter despair.
Veronica G. Sardegna, from The University of Texas at Austin has proved that certain pronunciation learning strategies can be used to improve the ESL speaker’s ability for greater competency in ESL usage.
While these strategies are not the only ones, nor exhaustive, they have been proven to work. Yes!
- Privacy: Find a place to work in private. This is simply to allow you the freedom to practice without being conscious or feeling awkward.
- Find a reliable pronunciation guide. The best idea is to download any free English learning app on your Smartphone. To keep it interesting you could watch any YouTube video you by native speakers you like, paying close attention to their pronunciation, accent, and grammar.
- Oral Practice: Notice how to divide long sentences into meaningful smaller phrases. You could make a list of the phrases you need to use most often, and practice them aloud, till they roll off your tongue with greater ease.
- Speech Monitoring: Read longer and more complex passages, like a paragraph in a magazine. Read aloud many times, so you hear what you speak and can correct your most common errors. This will also help you develop a more regular talking flow, once you have mastered the phrases.
- Compare your speech with those of standard users such as newscasters, or radio hosts: Listen and compare your speech style with a recording of the practice text. You may also use other sources that demonstrate the sounds you wish to master, such as popular English songs, which are great practice material because of the rhyme pattern. It helps you to master many different words simultaneously, especially those that have the same sounds.
- Practice speaking AND listening: You also need to work on comprehension. An easy method is to watch a YouTube video with closed captions, or an English film with English subtitles. Speak along with the audio and try to adopt the style.
While it is never possible to completely change the accent or have perfect mastery over any language, these tips will surely help you develop greater confidence and improved skills in speaking English as a second language.
Sofia Vergara’s accent could not hold her back, and for her role as Gloria – the accent very much included, she has been nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, , and seven Screen Actors Guild Awards.
What can you learn from the fearless Sofia Vergara?
Well, Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The more you use a language, the more comfort you develop with it. And when you make a mistake, which you will; don’t freeze. Handle it with humour and grace, even if you are ridiculed. You can’t control people’s actions but you can definitely choose how to react. As long as you convey your message correctly, you need not be apologetic or awkward about the accent or a few errors.
Which is just what Sofia Vergara’s strength is. Her accent never went away, but with her charm and can-do spirit, she is the sweetheart of millions.