Working on your accent? So am I — in six languages. As a native speaker of English and an adult learner of Spanish, French, Mandarin, Korean, Indonesian, and ASL, I’ve had my fair share of phonetic struggles, from Mandarin tones to that rolled Spanish “r”. But guess what? There are concrete steps you can take to improve your accent, especially if you understand a little bit about how language works. Here is what I’ve learned about accent reduction, one linguistics degree and six languages later.
Just want the TL;DR version? Scroll down to my list of 10 tips to improve your accent!
What Is an Accent and Who Can Hear It?
What is an accent? Simply put, an accent is speech that does not strictly follow the phonetic rules of a given language. It is usually detected when a non-native speaker tries to pronounce sounds that she does not have in her own language, tries to use phonetic categories that do not exist in her native language, or tries to pronounce sounds in environments in which they wouldn’t appear in their native language. For example, English speakers have trouble with clusters of consonants in Polish, like the Polish word for ruthless—“bezwzględny.”
Who can hear your accent? Accents are usually immediately detectable by native speakers, but not always.
Today I read a passage to my Malay teacher and asked her to correct my pronunciation. I slowly read through each sentence, waiting for her to stop me as my language teachers usually do, but she remained silent. At the end she thought for a moment and then declared, “Bagus! You have no American accent.”
I was flattered, but also skeptical. “Are you…sure? I’ve only been studying Malay for a couple weeks. How can that be true?”
She thought a little more. “You have no American accent but actually…you just sound like you’re speaking Malay with an Indonesian accent!”
To give you some context, Indonesian and Malay are very similar languages, a bit closer than Spanish and Catalan, but further apart than American and British English. I recently spent a month in Bali focused almost exclusively on learning Indonesian. This explained the Indonesian accent.
Unfortunately, however, if you were to ask an Indonesian about my pronunciation, even though they are exceedingly kind and tend towards flattery as a general rule, he would still say he hears an American accent when I speak his language.
It turns out that while native speakers are usually really good at detecting non-native accents, we’re actually not that good at detecting non-native accents when they’re not in our own specific dialect. Americans are notoriously bad, for instance, at detecting non-native accents if the speaker is speaking British English. (I’ve experienced this myself!) This is probably why my Malay teacher couldn’t hear my American accent.
So, one rather silly piece of advice I have for someone who doesn’t want her accent to be detectable is this: Learn one dialect of a language (say, British English), then move to a place where a different dialect is spoken (say, the U.S.!).
Goals for Accent Reduction
Is it bad to have a foreign accent? That really depends on what your goals are. If you want to be a spy, you should probably nip that accent in the bud (and send the bill to your government, because losing that accent won’t be easy, or cheap). But for all other cases, it’s important to have realistic goals. It is very difficult, although not impossible, for people to lose their native accent after childhood—due to neurological reasons (possibly—the jury is still out on this), and to our own time constraints (definitely true).
My own personal goal with respect to accent reduction is to be fully comprehensible in my target language, even in loud or confusing situations, and to master as many foreign sounds as I can, even if they do not exist in my native language. And if, every once in a while, I can pass as a native speaker for a few minutes (usually if the listener is tired or has had a few drinks), I consider that a huge personal victory.
So, how do you improve your accent in your foreign language? Here are ten concrete steps you can take.
Ten Methods for Improving Your Accent
1. Don’t get confused by orthography (writing systems).
There is no such thing as the perfect writing system (although Korean certainly comes close). What you say is never going to be exactly what you write, and being too dependent on visualizing the written word is often a big contributor towards internalizing your accent.
You have to be particularly careful about this if you are learning a language that uses the same alphabet or writing system as your own (in my case, the Roman alphabet, because I’m a native English speaker).
For example, it took me a look time to realize there is actually no “v” sound in Spanish (as we know it in English, anyway). When a “v” is written at the beginning of the word, it is actually pronounced closer to the English “b.” Nailing that was my first step towards improving my Spanish accent.
This is one reason some learning systems (Pimsleur, for example) prefer that you postpone reading and writing until much later in the language-learning process. I don’t think you necessarily need to be that extreme—as long as you are vigilant.
2. Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (the other IPA)
Luckily for us English speakers, the IPA is closely modeled on the Roman alphabet, but comes much closer to matching a sound to a grapheme (letter) on a one-to-one basis, so it is a much more efficient way to represent the sounds in any given spoken language. Once you are comfortable with IPA, you can use it to take much clearer notes on pronunciation, or to look up pronunciations online.
The language-learning app Memrise has an IPA pack, with sound included, that you can find here (you’ll need to add the course on your web browser, but then you can use it on your phone).
The University of Victoria in Canada has a clickable IPA chart here.
3. Be careful about adding sounds that don’t exist in your target language.
Every language has restrictions on what sounds can co-occur, and in what order, and in which part of a word. In English, we don’t particularly like to start a word with the “ng” (in IPA, ŋ) so English speakers tend to add an “i” sound before it, for example before the Cantonese word “ngo,” which means “me.”
We English speakers are also not used to having the “kt” sounds together at the beginning of a word (although we have no problem with them in the middle of a word, as in “lactose,” or at the end, as in “fact”). So, when pronouncing the Russian word “kto”, meaning “who”, we often add a tiny schwa sound (sort of like an “uh”). This is a big contributor to the typical “English accent” in Russian.
Spanish speakers, on the other hand, aren’t used to pronouncing “sp” or “st” at the beginning of a word. So they add an “e” sound to the very beginning, turning Steven Spielberg into Esteven Espielberg. If you’re a native Spanish speaker, concentrating on ditching that word-initial “e” will go a long way towards improving your accent in English!
Getting rid of these extra sounds is usually just a matter of focus, and sometimes a little bit of practice. Don’t forget, your tongue is a muscle. Sometimes it takes some work to get it to move in novel ways.
4. Don’t forget prosody!
Prosody is the pitch and rhythm of the language at the phrase or sentence level. The way your tones vary over a sentence can be very particular to your native language, and are a dead giveaway that you are not a native speaker of the language that you are learning. For example, not all languages raise in pitch to ask a question the way that American English does (although I don’t need to tell British English speakers that).
The best way to master prosody is really just to listen to as much of the target language or dialect as possible. I also highly recommend my monologue method (I’ll get into this more in Point 9).
5. Be aware that sounds change in different environments.
In linguistics, we call these “allophones”: sounds that change slightly depending on where in a word they are located. For example, the English /p/ at the beginning of a word is actually pronounced differently than an English /p/ at the end of a word (at the beginning of a word it is aspirated, meaning you express a lot more air). By the way, these are considered two very distinct sounds in Korean, and are written with different letters of their alphabet!
In Spanish, a /b/ at the beginning of a word is pretty close to the English /b/, but if it is between too vowels, it is actually closer to the /β/ sound (which is sort of like a /b/ if you don’t close your lips all the way and instead blow air, check it out on the IPA chart!)
Being aware of how sounds change in different environments will make a huge difference to your accent.
6. Don’t forget pitch!
Languages tend to situate themselves differently along the pitch ranges of the human voice. Of course, there are huge individual differences due to gender and size, but overall some languages are just spoken higher, and others lower. Spanish from Spain, for example, tends to be much lower than my pitch range in American English. To get a sense of the pitch range you should be operating in, it always helps to find a tutor who shares your gender and size. This way, when you open your mouth to talk, native speakers won’t be surprised by the pitch of the sounds that come out.
By the way, I’m definitely not saying that having a tutor of the opposite gender will impede your language studies; this is just a tip for if you want to work specifically on your pitch range.
7. Let your unconscious pattern recognizer do what it does best!
Our brains are very powerful pattern recognizers—given enough data, your brain can extrapolate rules just like the rules I’ve mentioned above, without even letting you know explicitly. This is how we learn languages as children, and this is why we know the rules of our own language without KNOWING that we know them. One advantage children have over adults, however, is TIME. Children are constantly absorbing linguistic data, with very few meaningful distractions. The best way that you can mimic this experience is to give yourself as much data as possible: listen to radio, podcasts, TV, or just sit in cafes surrounded by speakers of those languages. Make use of your time spent on commutes, or doing boring chores, to make sure you are giving your brain enough input. At the very least, I listen to Radio France International every morning when I get ready for the day, Pimsleur or Innovative Language Learning files as I work out, and some Netflix show in another language as I brush and floss at night.
8. Use Forvo!
If you need to look up how to pronounce specific words, check out Forvo, an exhaustive database of pronunciation for many languages and dialects.
9. Use my monologue method.
One strategy I have found to be particularly useful in improving pronunciation has been to prepare short monologues in the languages that I’m learning. They are ideally about 30 seconds to a minute long, depending on my level of comfort in that language. I first write out the monologue with a tutor to ensure that it is perfectly natural and colloquial in the target language, making sure to include only content that is relevant to me and my environment, so that it is actually useful later.
Then I have my tutor record it, so that I can listen to his or her pronunciation and prosody over and over again.
Once I have essentially memorized it the way I would a song, I record myself speaking it out loud (and if I’m not exactly word for word, even better, because that means I am comfortable getting creative!). Finally, I upload it to social media. This last step is mostly to keep myself accountable, and is of course not necessary for everyone.
This strategy works well for both spoken and sign languages. You can see my video about using this method for sign languages on Instagram here, or watch my YouTube video about using it for French (as part of the #30DRYC) here.
10. Be realistic.
Finally, it is important to be realistic about your accent-reduction goals as an adult. Recently there have been many challenges to the “critical period hypothesis,” the once-dominant theory that claimed that it is nearly impossible to become fully native in another language after childhood. Whatever the case, mastering a new accent remains exceedingly difficult due to other constraints, most significantly time.
In any case, there is nothing inherently wrong with having a slight accent—the only objective detriment being the possibility that native speakers may have trouble understanding what you’re saying.
(An extra note here that, funnily enough, psycholinguistic studies have shown that having an accent actually makes you MORE comprehensible to non-native speakers of that same target language—even if their native language is different than yours!)
Unfortunately, certain societies are much more tolerant of accents than others (partly because not everyone understands the amount of work that goes into learning a second language), so your desire to reduce your accent may simply be a wish to fit in better with your adopted society. Nothing wrong with that! Just don’t be too hard on yourself, be efficient about your language strategies, and remember that if you’re learning a second language, you are one step ahead of roughly 40% of the people on this planet.
Good luck! If you have any particularly good accent-reduction strategies that have worked for you, please leave them in the comments section below!
*Oh, and bonus fun fact: Accents aren’t confined to just spoken languages. Even sign languages, which don’t make use of sound, have accents as well. A non-native signer has an accent if he or she makes use of space and rhythm in a way that isn’t natural to that given sign language.