When I lived in Mexico, I was terrified to order in restaurants — even though I spoke Spanish. Why? Because every time I ordered, the servers didn’t understand me because of my accent. So I would have to repeat myself many times.
That was a great motivation to work on sounding more like a native Spanish speaker. Changing your accent depends on many things, including your natural talent when it comes to listening and hearing sounds, how old you are, how often you take lessons or work on your accent and your motivation for learning.
There is no quick fix for changing the way you speak in your non-native language. BUT there are many things you can do to better understand the native speakers around you — and to be better understood by them. These are the accent improvement tips that helped me sound more like a native Spanish speaker. You can use these strategies no matter which language you are working to master.
1. Watch the Mouths of Native Speakers
Have you ever noticed that babies watch your mouth when you are speaking? That’s because they are learning how to make the sounds that will eventually help them speak. They try to make the same shape with their mouths that they see you making and place their tongues the same way. These babies are on to something. Just listening to the sounds speakers make in your target language is often not enough to help you make those sounds. I can repeat a sound in French many times, thinking I’m saying it right, and my French friends keep shaking their heads. Shrug. But it sounds right to my ears, so don’t trust your ears. Knowing the shape your lips should make and where to place your tongue helps a lot. If it makes you feel creepy to watch the mouths of people around you, then watch the mouths of people on TV.
2. Close Your Eyes and Listen
Yes, you heard me. Close your eyes and truly listen to the sounds of a native speaker. Pretend you are an actor or a singer and you have to mimic the sounds they make. Does the native speaker put stress on any words? How is the native speaker feeling when they make this stress? Angry? Sad? Frustrated? How do they connect the words together? Try doing what they do when you speak. When you learn a language by reading, you don’t learn how to say the words correctly. No one speaks each individual word separately. The words are connected. Try to make those same sounds. Copy the phrases you hear, not just isolated vocabulary. A word sounds very different in a sentence than it does on its own. For example, “What are you doing?” When you say this question out loud, it really sounds like, “Whuh-d’r-yoo-doo-wing?” You might be wondering where that “D” sound came from or why there’s a “W” sound in the word “doing.” That’s exactly the point. The way the sentence sounds is incredibly different from the way that isolated words sound.
3. Copy Your Way to a Better Accent
Find a podcast you like in the language you are trying to learn and mimic the speakers. It’s just like when you were you a kid and imitated the way the grown-ups around you talked. Listen to the podcast while you’re commuting and talk out loud to yourself. (Admittedly, this is a little easier in your car than on public transportation!)
4. Make a Playlist in Your Target Language
When you’re listening to music, you notice sounds more than words. Try to make all the connections between words just like the singers do.
To sound more like a native speaker, the trick is to retrain your ears to hear the pure sounds of the language, and not what you think it sounds like based on spelling. (This is especially true of English and French.) What you see on paper is nothing like what comes out of native speakers’ mouths. Less books and more listening!