Making progress with your accent

There are many ways to work on your accent, and I’d like to touch on a few of them today. To learn pronunciation, you necessarily have to do a lot of listening, but there are some varying ideas about what you should listen to.

Recently, I’ve heard some people suggest that you can listen to speakers of your target language when they try to speak your own language. Find some recordings (perhaps on youtube) of some people with a heavy accent in English, and learn to imitate their English accent.

If you listen to beginners in English who are native speakers of your target language, you’ll hear which sounds they consistently have trouble with, and you’ll be able to hear how that sort of sound differs from a familiar English sound. You can also look for hints about the rhythm and intonation that they use in their sentences.

When listening in the L2, you may not always hear how it is different from what you’re attempting to say, because you’re not yet familiar with how it sounds. That said, you really need to become familiar with those sounds, and the way to do this is to do a lot of careful listening, even to things that you understand absolutely nothing of. It might even be better if you understand nothing, because then you have no choice but to pay precise attention to the sounds.

I still think that there can be great benefits from finding a very fast but precisely spoken newscast, and listening to it carefully for as many hours as you can. Try to hear every little sound, and let it put you into a sort of trance. Just keep listening, and eventually you’ll get random phrases bubbling into your head when you’re *not* listening, even if you understand nothing of what they mean. This is what I think really helps you learn the sounds…when you can compare your own productions with those precisely “recorded” sounds that bubble into your mind.

The main idea with all of this is that you have to train your brain to process these new sounds. At some time in your past, probably while you were very young, you learned to filter out certain sounds, or that some sounds are “equivalent” to others. For instance, in English we say our Ts in several ways…we can aspirate them (with a puff of air like in the word “Attack”), or say them in an unaspirated way like in “a bit”. But they both still signify a T sound…if you mistakenly aspirate every single T in English (like some Germans tend to do), then you’ll perhaps sound a bit more “precise” and “foreign”, but it won’t change any of the meanings of the words. In this sense, aspirated and unaspirated T are somewhat equivalent in English. This is not the case in other languages, such as Hindi, where they represent different distinct letters and might change the meaning of words if pronounced wrong.

When learning an accent, you have to learn these new categories. The way that you do this is through lots and lots of attentive listening. You need to first hear the proper sounds of the language in your head. Find something that you can listen to over and over again, until it gets stuck like a Michael Jackson song that won’t stop repeating in your head. Once you’re at this stage, then you’ll be better able to compare the things that you say with how it sounds in your head.

It also helps if you can read a bit about the sounds, perhaps in a technical linguistic description. Some of the terminology may take some getting used to, but such descriptions can help point out the technical differences in the pronunciation that you may not be aware of just from listening. A good teacher will also do this for you, but not all of us have that luxury. These descriptions can also tell you where to place your tongue in order to produce some of these sounds, which also may not be obvious from listening.

Once you’ve heard about these concepts, you’ll be better able to notice them when they happen in your materials. Noticing is very important, because if you just listen with your prior English language preconceptions, then you’re going to hear them as English sound categories. You need to use all tools available to you to be able to notice when they actually differ, and how.

Accent study is mainly the combination of these two activities: 1) being able to notice when something is different, and 2) massive amounts of attentive listening that will allow you to hear examples of those differences many hundreds of times. With these two things under your belt, you’re well on the way to having a good accent.

The final part is practice. You need to condition your tongue to go in the right place at the right time to make those new sounds, and this can be quite difficult when the sounds are very similar to your familiar English sounds. In all of the languages I’ve tried, there’s always a stage where I’m better able to recognize good and bad pronunciation than I am at actually producing it myself. This is actually a good place to be at, because then you’ll be able to apply those listening skills to yourself!

What you do is make a recording of yourself talking, as best you can. Ideally, you should say some sort of script that you already have as a recording from a native speaker (perhaps from an audiobook, or from a site like Rhinospike). When you play your own recording back to yourself, you’ll hopefully be able to hear some of the places where you did something sloppy. Listen to the native recording again, and then record yourself once more.

Another exercise to try is to set the native recording on infinite loop. Listen first, for maybe 50 times. This will allow it to seep into your head and become stuck. Yes, really 50, not 10. Next, you try and repeat along with the recording. You’ll suck at first, and you may have to listen a couple more times and try again, but keep repeating along with it. Try to do this 50 times in a row as well. As you go, you’ll be adapting your mouth movements and breath in order to be closer to what you’re hearing. After enough practice, it’ll become a lot easier and it’ll just happen automatically when you’re speaking normally.

For a more in-depth description, I very highly recommend reading Olle Kjellin’s paper on “Accent Addition“. His suggestions that pronunciation and prosody (the rhythm and intonation of speech) should be learned first are very valuable, and I wish all language teachers would take his advice.

One Response to Making progress with your accent

  1. Andrew says:

    I’ve always found that listening to a native speaker say something and then repeating after them and doing this 10 or 20 times in a row with the same sentence or two, then moving on and wash-rinse-repeating-ing to be the best method. A lot of people rag on Pimsleur, but it if you end up doing it I promise you you’ll have an outstanding accent by the time you’re done with it.


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