Karen Van Hook, Ph.D.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does it work?

To help clients achieve their pronunciation goals, I use a variety of techniques. To work on individual sounds such as ‘th’ or ‘r’, I start by evaluating how the individual is making the sound now. Then I explain exactly how to make the sound like a native—how the tongue is shaped, exactly what the movement is, etc. My method involves more than just work on more than individual sounds, however. We also practice the rhythm and voice qualities of American English, using a variety of techniques drawn from the world of voice coaching and theater.

What if I’m at a low level in ESL? Should I wait until I’m more fluent?

Even beginning English students can benefit from getting a good foundation in the sounds of American English. For beginners who can only speak in short phrases, some of the exercises will be modified. Beginning and intermediate students of English find that pronunciation work helps with all aspects of English study: it helps to develop accurate listening skills and makes it much easier to understand spoken English and to hear and remember important grammatical markers.

How long does it take to change my accent?

This is extremely variable, depending on the student’s individual background and goals—and how miuch the student is willing to practice during the week. Students usually make audible improvements in their very first lesson. The key is to practice and incorporate the new skills into everyday speech. Many students will find that 6-12 lessons are enough to achieve their goals. Others choose to continue shaping their accents over a longer time.

Can adults really change their accents?

Absolutely. The keys to success are commitment, curiosity, and willingness to try new things. Even senior citizens can change their pronunciation.

Can I sound exactly like a native speaker?

It is extremely rare—but not impossible—for an adult to learn to pass as a native speaker. If you want to aim for that goal, I can help you. But for the vast majority of people, sounding exactly like a native isn’t necessary or even desirable. A light foreign accent is actually an advantage in American society. The key is to shape your accent so that it’s an asset.

What if I’ve been in the U.S. for many years and my accent has barely changed? Maybe I just don’t have any talent for pronunciation.

In my experience, anyone can change their accent if they approach the work with a spirit of open-mindedness and determination. The fact that you’ve been around Americans for years doesn’t mean anything. It’s very difficult for adults to guess how to shape the tongue to make the trickier sounds of English, even if they hear English all day long. After all, you wouldn’t expect someone to learn to cook like a master chef just by living next door to a restaurant. I’ve had quite a few students who had lived in the US for 10 or even 20 years before they came to me. They all succeeded in learning new pronunciation skills.

Different parts of the U.S. have different accents. Which accent do you teach?

I teach the accent known as "General American"—essentially a neutral Midwestern accent. Though I live near Boston now, I was born and raised in California and picked up my parents’ Midwestern accent, so the neutral, Midwestern sound is my natural accent. I have a great interest in the accents of Boston, and if a student wants to learn to use or understand a Boston accent,  I can help, but I don’t speak with a Boston accent myself. Most clients want to learn the General American pronunciation.

Do you teach one-on-one or do you offer group classes?

I offer both individual and group lessons.

Are group classes really effective?

Yes. Groups are usually made up of students from similar language backgrounds, so that most people in the group need to work on the same things. Groups are kept small so that everyone has a chance to practice. Groujp classes offer some advantages besides the lower price: often it’s easier to hear a subtle distinction when you listen to another student working on it.

How do you spell your name? Van Hook or van Hoek?

I spell it Van Hook, but I have a lot of publications under the name van Hoek. Van Hook is the Americanized spelling and it’s the spelling on my birth certificate. When I was getting my Ph.D. in Linguistics, I decided to re-connect with my Dutch ancestry by changing my name to the original Dutch spelling. I was attending a lot of linguistics conferences in the Netherlands and kept being reminded that Van Hook looked “funny” from a Dutch point of view, whereas “van Hoek” is a fairly common Dutch name. And I liked honoring my Dutch ancestry by going for an “authentic” Dutch spelling. But over the years, I found out more about my American heritage. My Van Hook ancestors have a history in North America going back to 1693, and they’ve spelled it as Van Hook for a very long time (and I found out that the man who first came over in 1693 had yet another spelling anyway—he was van Hoeckje). And then in 2009, when I was taking care of my father as he was dying, I began to think about honoring my more recent ancestors by spelling my name the same way they did. Finally, I had noticed that “van Hoek” was causing a lot of confusion, because the spelling gave people the wrong idea about how to pronounce it. Since a lot of my work is with people who speak English as a foreign language, and since English is already confusing enough, I decided that I didn’t want to give people one more confusing thing to deal with. So I spell it Van Hook, as the rest of my family does, and it’s pronounced exactly the way it looks.