My business is 10 years old today! I officially started working as an accent coach on Wednesday 12th September 2012 and I’m still doing it a decade later. I feel very lucky to make a living out of something I enjoy.
Although I run the business by myself, I’m not alone: I’m extremely grateful for the support of friends, family, SCEP colleagues, students, and online followers. Thank you all!
If you’d like to know how I reached this point, read on for a potted history…
In early 2012 (before the Olympics in London), a Belgian friend asked me to help with her English accent. She was an actress who wanted to get more English-speaking roles. I realised:
- I was interested in it.
- I might be good at it.
- I could potentially make a business out of it.
My background (languages degree, CELTA qualification, drama school) gave me some of the tools to start. But to broaden my knowledge I proceeded to read all the books on phonetics I could find! Eventually (after some intense studying) this led me to take the International Phonetic Association exam at UCL (University College London) two years later.
These are some of the first books on phonetics I bought.
On 12th September, I officially registered as self-employed and began working. It took time to build up a client base, so I had a few other jobs to help pay the bills (waiter, actor, GCSE tutor).
I set up Twitter and Facebook for my business in November. Posting was sporadic at the start, but nowadays I usually post daily.
I began teaching ever more students. Lessons were at my flat in Leytonstone (East London), clients’ houses/offices, or online.
One client was particularly memorable: Sola*. She was a science teacher whose students couldn’t understand her. She’d gone to the doctor thinking she had a physical problem, but the only issue was pronunciation. No-one had ever taught her how the sound and intonation systems of her native language and English were different, or how to interpret the relationship between English spelling and sound. Her school paid for six lessons and she described the result as “life-changing”. Not only was she able to interact with her students, but communicating outside of work became so much easier that her social life improved. This was just one of the many rewarding experiences I’ve had over the past ten years.
* Her name and some details have been changed.
Demand for lessons had increased and so I decided to rent a private office. I managed to find a space at 81 Oxford Street in London, round the corner from Soho Square. I moved in on 1st August. Below you can see an advert I designed at the time, in which I look significantly younger…
It was exciting having my own office and people started to take my business more seriously. Students kept coming back even though the building was staffed by one of London’s most miserable receptionists.
Three months after moving in, I was told I needed to vacate the building, as it was about to be demolished! For a year afterwards, there was a vacant space in the sky where I used to teach. It was quite surreal walking past. Later on, the site was redeveloped into retail space and more offices.
My old office building at 81 Oxford Street, demolished with little warning in early 2015.
Luckily I managed to find a suitable office in a rather nice red-brick building on Bolsover Street, a stone’s throw from Great Portland Street. It had room for my ever-growing collection of phonetics books and I designed an IPA clock for the wall.
My 2nd office building at 3-8 Bolsover Street.
The IPA clock I designed on my office wall.
This year I also travelled to New York City to take my first workshop with Knight-Thompson Speechwork. Unless you’re undertaking a linguistics degree, it’s quite tricky to find teachers/organisations who teach phonetics. I loved the workshop: it was my first time being in a room full of people enthusiastic about sounds. It was also my first time visiting the USA and my ear had a great time listening to the range of accents in NYC.
Me in Times Square, New York City.
I’d already spent some time creating learning materials for my own students. This year I decided to create some free online resources for English pronunciation, such as the vowel chart, the consonant chart and the games.
In December I launched my first online pronunciation course. It had audio/video components and was tailored to the user’s native language. I was pleased with it, but I knew there was a lot to improve on.
A screenshot from my old pronunciation course. Click to enlarge.
In June I won UK Freelancer of the Year. After a lengthy application process and judging, I was awarded the prize at a ceremony in London. It was quite overwhelming! This was a huge vote of confidence in my business and the prize money helped me invest in future projects.
It was rather unsettling to see my name and photo on such a large screen at the award ceremony.
In September I launched an online tool to find out the pronunciation of London Underground station names. I was interviewed by BBC Radio London and the Evening Standard about it.
I also launched my YouTube channel in September. Since then, three videos have over 1 million views and one has over 2 million! In 2020, I was given the Silver Creator Award by YouTube.
Other noteworthy events this year include:
– Meeting and having tuition from Geoff Lindsey, who I have learned an enormous amount from.
– Writing a paper about teaching vowel sounds, which appeared as the lead article in the Voice and Speech Review journal.
I was invited to teach at the Summer Course in English Phonetics at UCL (University College London) for the first time. The course (known as SCEP) was founded by Daniel Jones (widely considered the father of English phonetics) in 1919 and is still going today! It gives students the opportunity to learn about the theoretical side of phonetics, observe practical teaching techniques, and/or improve their English pronunciation. I loved spending two weeks in the company of others enthusiastic about the discipline. Although I was teaching, I was also learning a lot through conversations with other teachers (Marina Cantarutti, Paul Carley, Josette Lesser, Geoff Lindsey, Inger Mees, Joanna Przedlacka, Alex Rotatori, Kate Scott, Jane Setter, Masaki Taniguchi, Shanti Ulfsbjorninn). Through working at SCEP over the past few years, I have also been lucky enough to speak to John Wells and David Crystal.
My orbicularis oris engaging (i.e. rounding and protruding my lips) at SCEP.
2019 marked SCEP’s centenary and I felt very privileged to both teach and lecture that year. Below you can see two pictures of staff and students: the one above is from 1919 and the one below is from 2019. Can you spot the nuns who travelled from France to the very first SCEP in 1919? Click the image to enlarge it.
I spent most of 2019 developing a new online pronunciation course with the help of the excellent software developer Quinn Daley (who I met in 2017 at the UK Freelancer of the Year competition) and talented filmmaker Reece Lipman (who I met at university back in 2007). Below you can see me filming one of the 136 course videos…
The beginning of March 2020 was a very strange time for all of us. I was tentatively going into the office to make the finishing touches to my online course against the backdrop of the encroaching pandemic. By mid-March, I was working from home. Lockdown was announced on 23rd March. By this point, I had finished and decided to launch the course on 24th March. I was very proud: the course was a huge improvement on the previous version and a lot of people signed up!
I started an Instagram account with “how to pronounce” videos and posts about homophones. This is quite different content from my Twitter and Facebook accounts, which mostly contain phonetic musings. At the time of writing, I have over 130k Instagram followers!
I spent a lot of time creating a UK accent series on YouTube, which illustrates how accents differ using clips of over 150 different speakers. The aim of the series is to help English learners understand speakers from different areas. It’s also a great resource for teachers!
In July, my online course was shortlisted for the British Council ELTons awards. These are often referred to as the Oscars of English language teaching. Although I didn’t win an award, it was an honour to reach the final. The British Council judges described my course as an innovative and expertly-presented resource which demystifies pronunciation for learners.
When a user signs up for my online course, they choose their native language, which subsequently tailors the lessons and content to their needs. This year I added support for Dutch speakers, which means I now offer specialised pronunciation courses for 20 language backgrounds. I‘ve also significantly improved the rhythm/intonation and word stress sections, as well as adding more advanced topics such as assimilation and elision.
I have a map on my website showing all the countries that my students come from. This year, I taught someone from Oman, which means I’ve now taught students from 90 countries around the world.
UCL’s SCEP course was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic. In 2021 it transitioned online and 2022’s course was virtual as well. One of the advantages of this is that students can easily join from all over the world, rather than having to take time off and fly to London. Even though we were in cyberspace this August, I did organise a trip for the teaching staff in real life: we saw My Fair Lady in one of London’s West End theatres. A phonetician’s treat!
From left to right: Jane Setter, Joanna Przedlacka, Geoff Lindsey, Kate Scott, and me.
There are a couple more exciting features in the pipeline for my online course. Plus I have a couple of phonetics-related projects that I hope to realise in the next few years. So watch this space!