I’ve dreamed of improving my accent for over ten years. In fact, it all started in the hot summer of 2010 when I met an English radio presenter back in Bulgaria. I had my own slot on the classic-hit station Trust Radio Europe where I used to teach English expats everyday Bulgarian phrases.
“It’s not “ear”, it’s “year”, that’s what the presenter once told me in the middle of recording the new phrase. I couldn’t believe that I’d been a teacher for over a decade, and I had been mispronouncing such a simple word. To my dismay, soon more words were added to this list- food, too, to name but a few.
Fast forward eleven years later, I am married to the same nice Englishman, and we’ve been living in England for over six years. Apart from teaching English, I am also a Mindfulness Life Coach and create meditations and visualisations for my students. In addition, I co –present the Saturday breakfast show on the local radio station. I really feel the need to work on my diction as well as elocuting the correct sounds even though I have been told some of my heavy Slavonic accent has gone.
After doing some research I book six lessons with a top elocution coach from London. Being excited is an understatement. I am feeling thrilled that finally I am investing in myself and am going to learn how to pronounce those difficult English sounds.
At the beginning of the class, the coach says:
“Curl your tongue back towards the back of the throat and try and say Monday to Sunday, then release the tongue and say the days naturally.”
He demonstrates the activity and off I go. What seems to be an easy task, turns into a torture for my tongue. It feels so unnatural, uncomfortable and even embarrassing. I feel sweat streaming down my body, and I want to simply disappear. Fortunately, my mindful instinct kicks in shortly and I decide to take a few deep breaths. My coach is waiting patiently and I’m grateful he gives me the chance to restore my composure. After a few attempts, I finally manage to complete the exercise and feel how my mouth, jaw and tongue start to relax.
Stay with a curious mind
Later on, I’m asked to practise the popular tongue twister about Peter Piper. Despite having read it with my students on numerous occasions, I approach this exercise with a curious mind. I’m trying to detect every rise and fall in my coach’s intonation while he’s reading it and then repeat it compliantly. I see myself as an absolute beginner and I am ready to learn patiently.
A week later while I am getting ready for my second lesson, I decide to do a quick body scan. I notice how my neck and shoulders have tensed up. To my surprise, my heartbeat has gone faster, too. So I close my eyes, take a deep breath and bring my awareness to my toes. I squeeze them gently and on the outbreath, imagine how their muscles relax. I continue with the rest of the body in the same manner. With a calm mind and open heart, I am ready to commence the class.
Today we’re practising long and short /i/. In order for me to recognise the different vowels, I need to listen mindfully and pay attention to the subtle nuances. To my relief, I don’t find the exercises too challenging and once I feel happy that “I’ve nailed it”, my coach says: “Your /t/ is too Bulgarian. Then he carefully explains how and where I should position my tongue in order to pronounce the British /t/ correctly. Needless to say, I find it hard. Some of my /t/s sound alright-ish, others- too harsh. For a moment, I stay quiet and try to take in all his advice. Then I close my eyes and visualise the whole process: first I have to put my tongue behind my top teeth. Then push air forward inside my mouth and finally quickly move the tip of my tongue away from the teeth in order to release the air. I make another attempt to pronounce the sound and hear: “That’s it. You’ve done it. Now, repeat the sound again.” My soul is cheering and I am able to replicate the consonant in exactly the same way.
At the end of the lesson my coach informs me that British people engage the muscles at the front of their mouth when they speak unlike people who were born on the Balkan peninsula. He recommends purchasing a “bone prop” which will help me practise employing those muscles. It doesn’t take me long to decide to buy the prop and start using it straight away. I am aware I’ve got a long way to go, however, I am determined to rewire my brain and tell it to start using the right muscles when I speak. It’s incredible that once you learn about neuroplasticity, that is the brain’s ability to modify and change, you know you can create new habits and skills by repeating the action over and over again.
At the end of the day, I am curled up in bed with an interesting book. I am wearing the bone prop and try to read a paragraph with it. Even though it sounds weird, I persist and finish the whole page. Then I continue reading out slowly and paying attention to the sounds I’ve already practised with my coach. I find it miraculous that when we slow down intentionally, we are able to dot the i’s and cross the t’s literally. Not only am I present with every vowel and consonant that come out of my mouth, but it also allows me to grasp the characters’ feelings better.
It’s lesson five and we are about to practise the most challenging sound for me- long/u:/. I’m aware that common words like “food, too, fruit, glue” have been a nuisance for me for a long time. After sharing my concerns with the coach, he assures me that’s the most difficult vowel to master and explains part of my problem derives from the way Bulgarians form certain sounds in their mouth. He senses I am upset and encourages me to read out a list of words. By the end of the lesson, I see there is some improvement, however, I notice I am still feeling down. I sit down to journal my feelings and offer self-compassion to myself. Being kind and non-judgemental to my mistakes in that case may not be easy but I know there are many people like me who are in the same boat. By being mindful of my feelings and thoughts, I am certain a clear mind will help me enhance my oral performance.
It’s been a month since my last lesson. Nevertheless, I continue practising daily – unlearning old patterns and learning new sounds. Finally, I am happy there has been a positive change in my pronunciation. While listening to our last Saturday breakfast radio show, my husband comments how much my diction and clarity have improved. I see my hard work is paying off. I feel grateful to him and my coach for their support and constant help. Yes, there are still many steps to take on my “elocution” journey but with dedication, constant repetition and mindful practices, I firmly believe I will succeed.