[EYE ON ENGLISH (15)] To learn English, accent matters to a point
This is the 15th installment of a series of interviews with experts in English education aimed at offering tips, trends and information related to English learning and teaching in Korea. -- Ed.
By Yang Sung-jin
Some Korean learners of English are eager to improve their accents and pronunciation, with their long-term goals set on reaching the level of native speakers. Cedric S. Kim, an expert on English accent training, said such lofty goals are not only misguided but also impractical.
"As with other foreign languages, the ability of producing comprehensible English pronunciation and accents is important, but there are a lot of misconceptions and false beliefs," Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
Kim, who runs a private English accent training institute (www.cedricenglish.com) in southern Seoul, is widely regarded as a frontrunner in the steadily growing market of accent-related English guidebooks here. His accent training book "Native English Accent," published in January 2008, is in its 8th printing, emerging as a top seller in the category.
"For those who have reached a certain level, English pronunciation might be a matter of choice, but for many Korean learners in the beginner's stage, learning accurate pronunciation is extremely important," Kim said.
Once beginner level learners get to know how to pronounce English words or phrases correctly, they tend to see improvement in not only speaking but also listening comprehension, he said.
Kim is offering basic accent training programs to Korean students who want to improve their overall English pronunciation and accents, using what he calls the "intonation curve," a pattern of highs and lows that is embedded in every word -- a vocal rhythm that is similar to the patterns found in Chinese language.
Although English and Chinese do not share the exact same intonation curve, the realization that there is an intonation curve to every English word is the first step toward a comprehensible accent, Kim said.
Kim said he spent more than 10 years coming up with specific training methods that are based on his own intonation curve approach. But he was not an expert on English education. In 1981, he immigrated into the United States and noticed he was misunderstood, suggesting that there was something wrong with his accent.
Kim majored in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and briefly worked as a high school teacher in the United States before returning to Korea in December 2003 when he began to devote much more energy to developing accent programs customized to Korean learners.
"I first studied the so-called "bbada sori" (butter-like voice). Korean learners often resent that they could not produce native-like sounds, perhaps due to some physical differences, but it turned out that that's not the case," Kim said.
Kim said he learned there is no physical difference that blocks Korean learners from producing native-like sounds. The underlying problem, he figured out, lies in the way Koreans apply their first language to learning a new one.
Attempting to acquire an American accent while using the Korean language as a starting point does not work. "It's like hitting white keyboards instead of black keyboards," Kim said.
Kim, however, warned that accent training can be overdone, calling for learners not to invest too much beyond the optimal level of return on investment. "Some students aim to speak as if they were native speakers, which is not theoretically impossible, but I think we should stop worrying about accent once we reach a level that allows for effective communications in English," Kim said.