I was inspired to write this blog post after seeing My Fair Lady on Broadway. Although I saw the film version in high school, seeing this musical live for the first time was a wonderful experience: the music was superb, the set and costume design breathtaking, and I found myself utterly absorbed. However, there was something that took me out of the moment and made me cringe, being an accent coach myself: Henry Higgins’ teaching methodology.
“Now wait a moment,” I imagine you are thinking. “This show is clearly fiction, and set over 100 years ago! Are you really going to nitpick accent training techniques used in this show?” Why yes, yes I am! Why? Because Professor Higgins is the best-known accent instructor in popular culture, and he has shaped the public’s view of what accent instruction fundamentally is despite most of his methodologies being, shall we say, unsound. Furthermore, based on the number of times I’ve been asked over the years if part of my training involves having people speak with marbles in their mouths, I am confident that there are certain myths in this area that are in genuine need of debunking!
So, for your reading pleasure, please enjoy this list of Professor Henry Higgins’s methodologies, ranked on a scale of “not unreasonable” to “Nope!”:
#6 – Using a tube and flame with a mirror for practicing pronunciation of the /h/ sound
This is probably the most reasonable method I saw in the show. Using visual feedback to represent accurate pronunciation of a target sound can be useful. I also like the way Higgins started with practice sentences, realized that was too advanced for his pupil, and so adjusted the lesson on the fly to practice the /h/ sound in a single syllable (“HA!”)
#5 – Playing a xylophone to teach proper intonation
This one doesn’t offend me. After all, it is logical to represent the musicality of speech via music, so I could see it theoretically being helpful.
#4 – Inspirationally monologuing about how the grandeur of the English language in an attempt to make the person speak it with a different accent
This one is somewhere between helpful and neutral. Motivation can be an important component of a person’s success in mastering a new accent, but generally that motivation comes from within and is not the result of being on the receiving end of a brief speech, no matter how heartfelt. Also, motivation is one of many necessary components of learning, but it is not the only component!
#3 – Saying a phrase in a person’s face over and over with no explanation of what they need to do differently until they repeat it back to you exactly as you said it
This is really not how accent training is done. If repeating what you hear someone else say were so easy, accent training wouldn’t need to exist! You’d simply hear anyone who has your target accent speak and imitate them precisely. To be fair, modeling target sounds may be one piece of accent training, but for the aforementioned reasons, has little effect by itself. When I give instruction, more explanation is definitely given (more details on that after the list.)
#2 – Marbles in the mouth
This one is silly at best, and wildly ineffective (not to mention a choking hazard!) at worst. Why would putting marbles in your mouth give you a different accent? It doesn’t make any type of sense! Although I will admit it makes for a compelling visual, so I can see why it plays well in fiction.
#1 – Mocking or insulting people until they start speaking in a different accent
No, no, and nope! I hope it goes without saying that legitimate accent training techniques and verbal abuse have nothing to do with each other, and if you ever encounter a professional from whom you are seeking instruction and they start calling you things like “bilious pigeon” and “heartless guttersnipe” I urge you to run very quickly in the opposite direction. Name-calling seems to be an integral character trait of Professor Higgins (even to the extent that Henry Higgins insult merchandise exists), but such behavior is far from professional for instructor-client interactions and, besides being not nice, it wouldn’t even be an effective accent training technique. After all, introducing the emotion of shame in connection with a person’s natural speech patterns can in fact be counterproductive in learning new patterns of speech.
Perhaps you’re now wondering, “Ok, so present-day, non-fictional accent training doesn’t involve any of those things. So, what does it involve?”
I’m so glad you asked! My accent training involves learning how to move your jaw, lips, and tongue in order to pronounce sounds, learning the rules of stress and intonation in American English and how to apply them when you speak, and much more. Lessons are customized to each individual and involve plenty of structure and feedback. Feel free to reach out and contact me if you are interested in American accent lessons!
In conclusion, a fictional musical set over 100 years in the past does not contain an accurate representation of real modern-day accent training techniques. Perhaps that is not so very surprising. But it certainly is a good musical, and its tunes are so catchy! Just avoid using it as a blueprint for accent training.