How do you pronounce “croissant?” That seems to be a word that gives people in other countries problems as well, at least to judge by the number of excited responses to Hadar Shemesh’s YouTube video on how to properly pronounce it in English. In the video, which has over 300,000 views, the speech and accent coach also demonstrates the correct pronunciation in American English of four other particularly challenging words.
When you hear her speak English in a near-perfect American accent, it’s hard to believe that Shemesh grew up in Petah Tikva and did not have an aptitude for foreign languages as a child. “I recently rediscovered my matriculation certificate and I saw that my score in English was 75, one of my lowest grades,” she recalls.
Her path to 3 million views, 75,000 subscribers and 167 YouTube videos began by chance. With dreams of being an actress, she went to New York after her army service and registered for acting classes, which included some tough diction lessons. She “fell madly in love,” as she puts it. “It sparked my confidence in my ability to express myself or to even try to do so. I also studied privately with some excellent teachers and at the end I had developed an American accent.”
Shemesh returned to Israel in 2007 and hoped to do stage work, but after numerous exhausting attempts to find work in the theater she gave up on acting. One day, while having brunch in Herzliya Pituach with a friend, the numerous high-tech employees at the restaurant vigorously speaking English gave her the idea to post a note offering “accent lessons.” A few days later, someone called, and after he worked with Shemesh for a bit a lot of his friends followed. Since then her business, The Accent’s Way, has been booming. In addition to private lessons, Shemesh has taught her course to learn an American-English accent at firms such as Google, IBM, Microsoft and WeWork.
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It turned out that Shemesh had hit on something that bothers many Israelis. “English is perceived as the language of success, a global language. It doesn’t matter who I speak to, they all say it’s something they want to improve,” Shemesh says.
Why is the Israeli accent so dominant when we speak English?
“The school system teaches English through reading and writing, but English isn’t a phonetic language, that sounds the way it’s written. It would be enough to teach third-graders to stick out their tongues properly to pronounce ‘th,’ and their accent would already sound different.
“Instead, they leave pupils to pronounce the words by how they sound, with no guidance on how the facial muscles are supposed to behave. This leads to investing tremendous, unnecessary effort to sound authentic, and it’s exhausting, so very quickly they give up and go back to speaking with a dominant Israeli accent, because that doesn’t require effort. I’m not saying you don’t have to learn grammar, but the first years of learning a language should be devoted to speaking.”
So how do you lose your accent?
“You develop a technique. It’s a solvable problem. Spoken English is an efficient language, based on investing energy in words that convey content, messages and abbreviations, omitting words that connect and convey time. You have to learn which words need less investment. At the same time, you need to loosen up psychologically, because when you get stuck on your accent the words become less available and you have difficulty expressing an idea clearly.”
Because we watch a lot of American television, it seems we know deep inside the correct pronunciation, even if we’re not conscious of it.
“You know how it’s supposed to sound, but not how to produce it, and that’s what causes the frustration. You can’t expect someone who hasn’t practiced to speak properly, because there’s a lot of muscle exercise involved.
“[Israelis] expect to be able to speak English well because it’s a language that they’re exposed to all the time, but in fact they don’t speak English very often. And when they do speak it, for some reason they expect to be able to do so fluently and without mistakes.”
Studies have shown that only in childhood can the brain easily absorb a new language at mother-tongue level. After a certain age, you can learn a language, but with difficulty. So what’s the point?
“It’s true that there’s a period during childhood when one can most efficiently build the phonetic categories of a language, which is what pronunciation is, essentially, but you can do it at a later stage, too. That’s what I did, but it requires study and effort. I don’t think that people need to speak with a perfect American accent. That’s actually my agenda. But you can zero in on the important pronunciations, understand what to emphasize in a word to convey the message, and not get all worked up about it not sounding good.”
Just recently an Indian student of Shemesh’s completed her course and got work doing narration for a Hollywood movie; another student, originally from Japan, lived in the United States for 12 years but was afraid to speak and rarely spoke English. After the course, she interviewed for a job and was hired. A number of well-known Israeli actors have been cast in English-speaking roles after Shemesh helped them prepare for their auditions. Politicians have studied with her as well.
Shemesh relates this in an effort to demonstrate that language is primarily a matter issue of self-confidence, and to stress that in most cases it will be hard for foreigners to sound like natives — and that it’s not the most important thing.
“Most of my followers aren’t Israelis, and at first it wasn’t clear to them that English wasn’t my mother tongue,” she says. “I hid it, I was even a little ashamed of the fact that English isn’t my native language.
“But now I am increasingly expressing my views on this issue. One has to work on one’s accent, pronunciation and intonation in order to be clear, but one doesn’t have to hide that fact that we’re different and we don’t have to be ashamed of it. This conclusion came with the changes that I went through; I’m not a native speaker, I also make mistakes, but I’ve been through the process exactly like my followers, and this is what I teach.”
According to Shemesh, “Beyond the pronunciation, the gap between knowing English and being able to express oneself in it — feeling stuck, refusing to accept mistakes — keeps people from speaking. They will continue to do English exercises but they won’t advance their spoken English. Pronunciation is a means, but people consider it the ultimate source of confidence in the language. Yet if they don’t speak it regularly and succeed in conveying real messages, not just practicing, it will be hard to assimilate the language.
“The psychological aspect is a significant part of learning a language,” she says, emphatically. “It’s so significant that I think it has to be part of the curriculum, to learn to accept the gap between who you are in your mother tongue and who you are in English; to encourage mistakes and recognize it’s the only way to learn. We teach that there is only one correct answer and that you lose points for mistakes, but when you think that there’s only one way to say something, you create obstacles.”