“Wow, you hardly have any accent!”
That’s one of the most glowing reviews a native speaker can give to a language learner.
Fluency is often described as the ultimate goal of language learners. Despite that fact, many find it even more impressive if you are as fluent as a native, and sound like one too!
The problem is, speaking with a flawless accent (or no accent at all, depending on your perspective) is such a poorly understood concept that even those who have achieved it have a hard time explaining exactly how.
Today, however, we’re here to fix that.
It’s About More Than Just Pronunciation
Speaking a foreign language without an accent is actually a combination of two factors:
- Pronunciation: The ability to successfully articulate the strings of discrete sounds that form words and sentences in your chosen language, as a native speaker would.
- Intonation: The ability to successfully imbue a spoken sentence or phrase with the almost “musical” rhythm and tone that a native speaker would.
Perfecting Second-Language Pronunciation
Pronouncing a language well generally comes down to the mastery of both individual sounds, and the flow of those sounds as you express them in sequence.
In order to build the best possible pronunciation in the long run, you need to start focusing on it from the very beginning.
When we learn a new language, we instinctually “map” the catalog of sounds from our native language onto the language that we are learning. Given that not all languages use the same sounds, this “quick-mapping” can lead us to pronounce unknown sounds incorrectly, and ultimately create misunderstandings when others listen to us speak.
The quickest way to remedy this problem is to:
- Determine which sounds in your new language are most difficult for speakers of your mother tongue.
- Use that knowledge to practice articulating those sounds in normal speech.
There are many ways to go about doing this, but we recommend the following:
- Select a short text in your target language that is less than 150 words long.
- Assuming that you can already read the script your language is written in, either:
- Read that short text directly to a native, or
- Record an audio file of yourself reading the text, and send it to the tutor.
- Politely ask for feedback on your pronunciation, in spoken or written form.
- On your own time, practice re-reading the passage while incorporating the native feedback from the last step.
- Again, read (or recording yourself reading) the text to your native helper.
- Repeat steps 3-5 as necessary.
Once you feel that you have sufficiently “mastered” the unfamiliar sounds of your new language, you can begin to tackle the next key part of a good accent: intonation.
Perfecting Second-Language Intonation
In basic terms, intonation is the “musicality” of an uttered sentence or phrase in a language, and is generally dependent on changes in the pitch and rhythm of your voice as you speak.
When prompted to change their intonation style to match a new language, most people struggle mightily, because they associate their intonation with their personal identity (“This is just how I talk”) instead of the language itself (“This is how speakers of my native language from my culture group talk, and I just happen to be one of them”).
Despite being generally unaware of the importance of intonation when learning a language, most people do, in fact, build semi-accurate intonation models in their heads. They just don’t realize it.
You build these intonation models, too.
When, you ask?
When you imitate speakers of other languages.
Imitating Native Speakers
Take a second and attempt to imitate a French person speaking your native language.
Got it? Now try an Italian accent.
Then, if you can, try a German, or an Indian accent.
And now imitate a native of your new language speaking your mother tongue.
Each time, you should notice that pitch, rhythm, and general “texture” of your voice tends to change.
Sometimes, it might be slower, smoother, and more musical. Other times, it might be quicker. Or more staccato.
The major point is that when you do “impressions” like these, you’re actually building the skill of modulating your intonation to sound more like that of a native.
More than likely, if you use your “impression” of a native speaker when actually speaking your target language, you’ll instantly sound better than you otherwise would.
Of course, uneducated “impressions” like these are generally used outside of language learning circles to mock or ridicule non-natives, so we must be careful. Since we don’t want to offend anyone, we can’t just stop here and call it a day.
What we need to do is take your initial, probably “cartoonish” caricature of a native’s intonation and refine it.
To do that, follow these steps:
- Select a new short text or return to the text from the pronunciation step.
- Find a native speaker and request politely that they record themselves reading your chosen text aloud, and that they send you the finished file when they are done.
- Listen to the file without reading the text.
- Listen to the file several times while simultaneously reading the text.
- While listening and reading, try to mimic all aspects of the native’s voice as best you can, using your base “impression” as a starting point.
- When you’ve practiced enough to be comfortable, record a new file of yourself imitating your native partner’s audio as close as possible.
- Politely ask for feedback.
- Repeat 3-7 as necessary while incorporating new feedback each time.
By working closely with a native on the most difficult elements of accent reduction, and doing so as early as possible in the learning process, you’ll be able to build the invaluable muscle memory and auditory skills necessary for near-accentless pronunciation down the road.