How to Improve Your Accent
June 20, 2017
Cynthia and Richard Murphy were your average Americans: Cynthia worked at a bank and Richard was a stay-at-home dad helping to raise their young daughters. They had been living in the suburban New Jersey neighborhood for years. Their children went to local schools, the family always greeted the neighbors, and they were your average - albeit quiet - middle-class family.
And then one day they were arrested.
What for, you may wonder?
It turns out that the Murphys were actually Russian spies sent to collect information to send back to the Russian government.
They, along with several other couples discovered at the time, had gone undetected for years. But how could they fool everyone for so long?
The Murphys acted, looked and sounded just like any other middle-class New Jersey couple. They impersonated the local culture. Basically, they walked the walk and talked the talk.
These spies achieved something that all of us language learners dream of achieving: complete fluency to the point of blending in perfectly with native speakers. They had even mastered their accent so well that the locals couldn't even notice anything strange.
So how did they do it?
The Linguistic Life of SpiesIn a 2012 interview, former Russian spy Andrei Bezrukov revealed how he had managed to live undercover in the United States for over 20 years without anyone noticing a hint of a Russian accent.
In the interview, Bezrukov provides a very simple answer as to how he managed it: he didn't speak a single word of Russian.
"This is one feature of undercover work. You cannot use your native tongue, even at home; you have to be a control freak. That said, after working for several years, it comes naturally to you. You even have dreams in other languages. My wife and I now speak mainly in English and French."
In order to get to a point where he was ready to undergo complete linguistic and cultural immersion, Bezrukov had a lot of training, however.
While countries like the U.S. and Russia naturally aren't eager to reveal their language training programs for spies, there are a few things we do know. First of all, we know that spies-in-training probably spend up to 8 hours a day in private language classes, followed by several hours of personal study time. As you can imagine, this intense training pays off.
Unfortunately, however, not all of us have the time and resources for this kind of training
So what can you do if you want to improve - or even master - your accent in your foreign language?
We have some tips.
Immerse yourself by reading, watching and listening.Fortunately, you no longer need a passport and plane ticket to "travel" to a country where the language you're studying is spoken. Movies, music, television series, books, newspapers, magazines...all of these great resources are easier to access than ever and can provide you with the immersion your brain needs.
Reading, watching and listening all have a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to the language you're learning, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words. Then, it tries to make sense of new structures. It even tries to figure out the best way to pronounce them.
Basically, you're learning without feeling like you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using words and pronunciation that you didn't even study thanks to your brain's ability to soak it all up.
One word of warning, though: if you really want to get useful pronunciation help, make sure that what you're reading, watching or listening to is modern and in a dialect that you would like to learn. After all, speaking like Don Quixote won't help much on your next vacation to Mexico!
Listen to native speakers regularly.Similarly, you should listen to native speakers as much as possible.
Listening to them will not only help to improve your listening skills, it will also help you become accustomed to their accents and pronunciation.
After all, the more you listen, the more familiar you will become with the language and its unique sounds. Try to listen to native speakers as much as possible and pay attention to how they pronounce their words.
Mimic native speakers.Now that you're listening to your foreign language as much as possible, it's time to dive in and start speaking.
One of the best ways to do this is by mimicking native speakers.
To do this, all you need is a recording in your native language (whether it be a movie, series, podcast, song, speech, etc.) and a comfortable place to speak. Then, all you need to do is watch or listen to the recording and mimic what the speakers are saying.
In the beginning, you can try to pause or rewind the audio to be able to understand and repeat better. Try to mimic the tone, sound and rhythm of the speaker you're listening to. After a while, however, you should simply try and repeat everything you hear as it's being said.
This method is extremely effective and is also used in the well-known shadowing method.
Repeat, repeat, repeatThere will always be certain sounds that are just more difficult to pronounce than others. For these, the best bet is repetition.
Make a list of the words that you find more difficult to pronounce along with an explanation to remind you how to pronounce them. Then, whenever you have some free time, try to pronounce them out loud or in your head. That's right: even imagining yourself saying them correctly helps!
You can also make flash cards with these words and sounds or even write them on Post-it notes to post around your home or office.
Get some help from a native.Having a native speaker help you out is an extremely helpful way to practice your accent.
This is one of the best ways to not only get used to the sounds, but also get some feedback and help with those extra tricky sounds. Plus, it's a very fun way to get to know another person and learn about their culture!
However, this is often easier said than done, especially if you don't live in a big city. So how can you find a native speaker?
Here are a few ways:
- See if anyone in your network of family, friends and coworkers knows a native speaker who they could introduce you to. It's amazing who you can meet simply through word of mouth!
- Consider hosting a native speaking traveler from Couchsurfing or check out Meetup to see if there are any other language learners or native speakers in your town or area.
- Find a language partner on italki. This social language learning network can help connect you with native speaking teachers and language learners to practice.
- There is also a wide range of other free language exchange websites that can help you meet native speakers and start an online language exchange.
- If you're learning a language that isn't spoken by many people or are learning a dead language, then your best bet is to extend your search to fellow language learners and find one who is at a more advanced level than you.
Record yourself speaking.Recording and listening to yourself speaking is one of the most powerful hacks to improve your accent and pronunciation.
If the thought of this makes you wince, you're not alone. After all, the majority of people hate having to listen to a recording of their own voice. However, we promise that you'll get used to it with time, especially after you realize how helpful it is.
All you need to do is use the voice recorder on your phone or computer to record yourself saying phrases that you have troubles pronouncing. You can even practice tongue twisters to help master those tricky sounds!
Then, listen to yourself as if you were someone else.
It will be easy to criticize your problems, but remember to also celebrate the small victories and reward yourself for what you're doing well. Then, try to pick apart your mistakes, identify which words you need to practice, and repeat them until you're feeling confident.
If you're not sure if you're pronouncing something correctly, share your recording with a native speaker and ask for some feedback. You can even ask them to record something for you that you can use as a guide.
You don't need to be a spy to have a great accentNo matter what, remember that you don't need to go through intensive spy training to get a great foreign accent.
You just need to take advantage of a few helpful hacks to practice and tune your ear to your foreign language. Don't be afraid to ask some native speakers for help. Odds are, they'll be delighted to practice with you!
Do you have any tips or tricks you use to practice your pronunciation? Feel free to share them below in the comments section!
By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger. Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.
June 21, 2017
Great read. One thing that has really helped me is a phonics class by a native speaking speech therapist. In 10 days she was able to point out some of the subtle differences in sounds and also explain tongue placement and action to correct the accent. I know everyone doesn't have this option, but anyone planning on spending a longer time in a foreign country should consider this as an option. I'm currently in Peru and have been surprised by the number of people that tell me (without my solicitation) that I don't sound like someone from the US. I'm still no where near native sounding, but I've departed from sounding like a "norteamericano." So although there's still work to do, I'm happy with my progress.
June 21, 2017
Great methods !
June 23, 2017
"you're learning without feeling like you're learning"
I couldn't help thinking of Bruce Lee's "The art of fighting without fighting" here :)
Mind you, although I agree with the gist of Andrea's article, I do have to confess that I enjoy foreign accents; when I hear someone speaking English fluently but with an accent, say French, Italian or Russian (like John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda I love the Russian accent) I enjoy the sound, and have nothing but respect for the speaker (who has taken the trouble to learn my native language).
Does anyone have any opinions, contrary or otherwise on this?
Still I will take Andrea's suggestions and try to improve my own accent, although at my age I doubt that I'll ever pass as a native.
June 24, 2017
I have had friends tell me not to try and lose my american accent completely as it sounds nice and I also enjoy hearing a bit of an accent when foreigners speak in English. Too much of an accent though grates on the ears - I'm sure that's true in any language.
June 26, 2017
I'm always amazed at the people in overseas call centres. I live in B.C., Canada and sometimes when I reach somebody in a call centre in the Philippines, I can hardly recognize their accent as being different from my own. These people are very well trained.
June 26, 2017
Diana, I'm glad that you've had a very different experience than me with call centers. The norm for me is someone that speaks worse English than I do Spanish. (And I'm in no position to work in a call center). The grammar and accent are usually horrendous. But it is certainly a pleasure when the other person is understandable.
Anyways, I agree with Steven and Peter that accents can be nice. I prefer subtle accents. Another thing to remember is that when talking to people with hearing problems, accents can really hinder the communication.
June 27, 2017
I know what you mean, hefay. Sometimes I receive phone calls and not only is the English poor, but also the accent is so vastly different from what I'd call norm, that the person is unintelligible. Maybe it makes a difference on the company and how much money they have to spend on hiring quality people.
July 2, 2017
Perhaps the companies that hire these people can purchase Rocket English for their employees!!!
But that does not exist now, does it?
We can only hope...
July 3, 2017
Actually rocket English does exist ...
July 6, 2017
These are excellent tips, thank you.
July 9, 2017
Hablando de los acentos, el otro día leí una cita en el internet que decía, "Cuando una persona tiene un acento, significa que puedes hablar una lenguaje más que tú." ¡Me gusta esta frase mucho!
and since this is the general forum, here is the English version for my non-Spanish-speaking friends:
Speaking of accents, the other day I read a quote on the internet that said, "When a person has an accent, it means that he can speak one more language than you. I like that phrase very much!
July 10, 2017
Nice quote: puts things in the right perspective.
July 11, 2017
Interesting posts. I agree that there is nothing wrong with speaking a language with an accent provided that you can be readily understood. Incidentally, I presume that even if the Rocket software rates me 100% (I am learning German) that I would still be regarded as having an accent by a native speaker.
A common complaint in the posts is that Rocket's voice recognition software says it does not understand when the speaker thinks they are repeating a phrase perfectly. I know the feeling! There is nothing more frustrating that continually repeating a word or phrase and having it rejected when you are convinced that you are saying it correctly.
Perhaps Rocket could consider including at the start of each course pronunciation guides for the common sounds without these being linked to words. For example, I was having great trouble pronouncing the German word null. After a lot of listening and trial and error I worked out that it was the "l" sound that was causing the difficulty. I stumbled across one site on the internet which showed how to hold the tongue when trying to pronounce that sound in German and this helped a lot.
July 11, 2017
Hi Graeme - Thanks for the feedback. There is the lesson on the German alphabet within Rocket German that covers pronunciation. We can always expand that lesson if necessary.
July 12, 2017
Thanks, Jason. In my view the lesson on the German alphabet does not go far enough. There is no way to test our pronunciation against a native speaker in the case of individual sounds.
What I had in mind is this. I gave the example of difficulty in pronouncing "null" in German. Once I had isolated that it was the "l" sound that was causing the difficulty, there was still the issue of working out how to correct this. By delving around on the internet I managed to find out that English speakers generally pronounce the "l" at the end of a word with the tongue towards the bottom of the mouth whereas a German speaker will pronounce this by placing the tongue on the tip of the palate. Whether this is sound advice I don't know but it did seem to work.
In other words, I think more is needed than just providing a sound to imitate. Tips on why a learner (say an English-speaking learner) might find a particular sound difficult and specifically how they could shape their mouth to avoid the problem, would I think be very helpful.
Having said that, you have learners from many different countries and each will have their own issues and their own fix, so I don't know how you go about resolving that. But I am guessing that English speakers would form a big proportion of your learners so tips relevant to English speakers might be the way to go in first instance.
July 12, 2017
I don't know if you found this:
It has a specific section on how to pronounce German letters including "L". It says it often causes problems for English speakers as English has different pronunciation for "L" at the start of a word and the end of the word. Whereas German only has one pronunciation which is similar to the English at the start of a word.
July 12, 2017
Thanks, Hugh. Yes, that was the site I found. I think part of the trouble in pronouncing another language is that we don't understand well enough how we pronounce certain sounds in our own language. Basically I suppose because it is second nature. That's why I found the above site so helpful. I had never realised that English speakers pronounce "l" differently at the start and end of words.
Of course another problem is that from what I have read, our mouths form differently in infancy depending on what language we are being brought up in. I'm told that this is why some of us find certain sounds in other languages almost impossible to reproduce. Hopefully, German has none of these for native English speakers. It shouldn't having regard to the origins of both languages.
July 12, 2017
I am not sure if I buy the idea of structural differences in the mouth, I should have thought that it is more likely to be nerve pathways in the speech centre in the brain that develop differently. I think it is very difficult to get pronunciation so good that native speaker can't tell if you learn as an adult.
Something that I have found useful is to try to speak exactly in time with the German speakers in the course. Some phrases seem to come easily, but others seem like terrible tongue twisters and I have to practice many times before I can keep up.
July 12, 2017
Hi Graeme - We have one of our German tutors looking into it! If you haven't already have a look at Alexander Arguelles' Shadowing Technique. There is a description and link to his Youtube video in My Tools > Advanced Learning Techniques > Lesson 21.
July 13, 2017
Thanks for the tip about speaking exactly in time. And apologies to sfpugh for getting the name wrong. Perhaps I should learn to read English before I try to learn German!
July 18, 2017
Wow, this is incredible!
Yes, I love accents when you can still understand what one is saying. My favorite is Russian but I met a German guy a couple of weeks back and I liked it more than I thought I did. All I can think is "everything sounds better when you say it like that." Maybe that's why we have so many British people doing American TV commercials....