You Speak a Second Language with an Accent. So What?
My Spanish-speaking client arrived for her in-office Corporate English Training lesson and flopped into her chair, clearly exasperated about something.
“Why can’t I order a regular coffee like everyone else at Starbucks without confusing the cashier?” she fumed. “I say the same thing as everyone else does!”
I knew where she was coming from. When I lived in Mexico, I often had to repeat my order to waiters several times. It left me feeling embarrassed and dumb — and it left me avoiding coffee shops altogether.
Now, after dedicating a decade of researching accents and accent training (English accent, Spanish accent, French accent, and Japanese accents for foreigners), I have come to understand quite a few things that I never learned in my traditional, formal, foreign language classes.
Let’s get real about accents.
Here are a couple of hard truths about building language proficiency: You can spend endless hours poring over textbooks, memorizing vocabulary lists, and even practicing in the classroom, but you still won’t sound like a native speaker. Native speakers might have trouble understanding you because of your “foreign accent,” but you can improve on that.
Today, I’m sharing some tips about how to improve your accent so you can feel more comfortable in your second language, sound more like a native, and communicate more easily with others.
Why Do We Have Accents Anyway?
First, though, let’s talk about what accents are and why we have them when we speak in another language. The Linguistic Society of America does a great job of breaking down this topic. As the LSA explains, when you were born, you had the capability to learn the sounds of any language. You could have effortlessly picked up the tricky German Z or mastered rolling your R’s like a native Spanish speaker.
But as you started to become more aware of the world around you, you also became aware of the language or languages people around you were speaking. You were really, really good at figuring out which sounds were important in the language you were hearing and which ones you didn’t have to worry about. You became “wired” for your native language.
Fast-forward to today. You’re working to learn a new language that uses some sounds your native language doesn’t. You could have learned those sounds in a flash as a kid, but now your ear has trouble hearing them and your mouth has trouble forming them. So you swap in a similar sound from your own language — for example, the English R for a Spanish R. It sounds pretty close to you. But it sounds way off to native speakers: aka, an accent.
What we think of as a foreign accent goes beyond how words are pronounced, though, as the LSA points out. Different languages use different sound patterns, rhythms, stresses and structure sentences differently.
All of this can add up to frustration as we try to be understood in our non-native language.
How to Improve Your Accent
When we’re kids, there’s a “critical period” where our brains really go all out to help us learn language. Unfortunately, it’s never that easy again. If you’re learning a second language, you’re not going to intuitively pick things up the way you did when you were little.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to sound more like a native speaker, improve your accent — and be more easily understood by native speakers. Here are a few tips that helped me when I was in Mexico and that all Fluency Corp instructors use with our clients.
Practice Under Pressure. Remember how I said in an earlier blog that I didn’t like ordering in restaurants when I worked in Mexico? I always tried to get my friends to order for me. But they did something very wise and kind: they refused to. They knew they wouldn’t always be there and that I had to figure out why waiters didn’t understand me. When someone asks you to repeat yourself, make a mental note that you’re obviously saying something differently, and ask the native speaker to say the sentence so you can hear how they would say it. Take notes or even record them saying it on your phone. Don’t be embarrassed! People typically love helping out, and it’s a way to make a new friend!
Study Native Speakers. You’ll learn more interacting with native speakers than you ever did in a language classroom. As I was trying to improve my ordering skills in Spanish, I paid close attention to how my native-speaking friends ordered, including the specific phrases they used. I tried to stress the syllables they stressed; speaking more slowly so I could really nail the double R’s and soft T’s and D’s, V’s and B’s. I tried to mimic the rhythm they used – like a song, with a beat and a tone.
Get Feedback. Is there a specific word that people consistently don’t understand when you say it? Ask a native speaker to review your pronunciation and give you some pointers. For my client who was getting tripped up at Starbucks, the problem word was “milk.” She had to say the word three times before pointing at some milk to make herself understood. Her pronunciation was “meh-elk,” which we worked on together. Be sure to check out www.forvo.com, where you can find any word pronounced in English (or any language). You can even choose an American accent or British one, so you can find the pronunciation of the exact people around you – wherever you live and work. It’s fantastic!
Crank Up Some Tunes. I also started getting into music when I was learning French. I noticed how singers connected the end of one word to the beginning of another word (it didn’t sound like how it looked!), how they cut off the endings of some words and blended them with the next ones. Mimicking them really made me sound more like a native speaker with a native rhythm of speaking – and it was fun! Not to mention at parties or with my new friends, I could join in when everyone belted out the songs!
You Don’t Have to Speak Perfectly
Finally, I want to reassure you that you can still work successfully and form meaningful connections with others in your non-native language even if you never quite “lose your accent.” Researchers are coming around to the idea that the “intelligibility principle” is the most effective way to learn a language. Here’s how Time magazine described the intelligibility principle:
“Pronunciation can be learned—but it should be learned with the goal of communicating easily with others, not with achieving a textbook-perfect accent.
Learners guided by the intelligibility principle focus less attention on individual vowels and consonants, and more attention to the “macro” aspects of language, such as general speaking habits, volume, stress, and rhythm.
The intelligibility principle may be behind the acknowledged effectiveness of immersion-learning programs: when we immerse ourselves in a foreign language, particularly as spoken by natives, we’re picking up more than specific vocabulary words: we’re getting the gist of how the language is spoken, and our own attempts reflect this expansive awareness.”
That description tracks really closely with what worked for me as I learned Spanish in Mexico. And it aligns with our approach to language training at Fluency Corp. Language learners who study with us get plenty of speaking experience they can use in real-world scenarios both at work and when socializing. To learn more, contact us now for a free consultation. While Fluency Corp specializes in helping multilingual workforce and global institutions if you need one-on-one language lessons be sure to visit TruFluency for individual classes starting at just $54 an hour.