Learning languages helps us develop and personally grow, and offers us new opportunities. Lots of people enjoy learning, but sometimes, we end up speaking with a noticeable accent.
While having a bit of an accent may be cute and spark up conversations, a noticeable or unintelligible accent can make communication tough and unpleasant.
In this article I’m going to talk about how to learn an accent so you can speak on a native-like level.
What is accent?
According to my definition, accent is how a spoken language sounds, and it is formed from a combination of:
rhythm & stress
All of these elements are used when speaking, therefore, any changes in the above elements will have an impact on our accent. The goal is to learn how to use these elements to form the right accent.
This is the way you move your tongue and mouth to pronounce a sound, or how complete these movements are.
Example: If you pronounce the sound “R” with your tongue flat, and down, like when you say “Aaa” at the doctor, you would use an articulation similar to the British one for “R”. But if after you pronounce the “A” sound, you turn the tip of your tongue up and start closing your mouth, you’d be pronouncing a more articulated “R”, found in American English.
This is how articulation affects the sound that comes out, and it mostly influences the pronunciation.
Pitch is the general height of your voice when speaking.
Example: Americans speak with a medium pitch, while British speakers will use a higher pitch, and Russian speakers use a much lower pitch.
When learning a language, identify what pitch native speakers use, and replicate it.
3. Rhythm & Stress.
Rhythm is the general flow of a person’s speech. It characterizes how fast or slow people talk, and which areas of a sentence or word the native speakers tend to make longer or shorter.
Stress, is the most emphasized part of a word or sentence.
Example: In the Italian word “Bène”, the first “E” sound is the most enunciated one. Often, it’s longer than all the other sounds together. If I stress the first “E”, “Bène”, it remains to be part of the Italian language, however if I would stress the second “E”, “Benè”, it would sound closer to French.
Speaking of which, French speakers, tend to stress the end of the word or sentence. Details like this are what you should pay attention to when trying to learn an accent.
Specific sounds, are sounds particularly met in a language, like “R” and “U” in French, the short “i” in Russian, the ‘dz” in Italian and so on. You would want to learn the specific sounds of the language because they are often “the heart” of the accent. Learning them should help you easily master the rest of the sounds, since you already learned the hardest ones.
How to Learn an Accent:
Motivation boost first: When you say that an accent is complicated, remember that there is a community of people out there that use it perfectly fine. They don’t use dark magic to cast that accent, they use their mouths. And if they can, you can too.
More importantly: You have to be motivated in general. This means having a good reason to learn a language. Since our brains only remember the most important information, to have a good reason means the information you learn has to provide some benefits for you. If your reason is similar to “I want people to be amazed at the fact that I speak another language” you probably won’t learn as effectively as people who naturally like their target language. Listen: To learn an accent you have to know how it sounds.
Pay attention to how fast people talk, and specific details that are different from your language.
Example: We have the “R” sound in American English, and in French as well. But in French it is different, so when learning French, I’d have to learn to pronounce the “R” differently.
Conclusion? Listen and identify what’s special about the accent you want to learn.
There are 2 forms of listening in language learning:
Passive listening: which can be listening to the radio playing in the background.
And active listening: which means you listen carefully to an audio material, and concentrate on trying to understand the specificities of the accent, identify and memorize how articulated the language sounds, try to understand if the rhythm of the language is fast or slow, or mixed?
Imagine that the accent is “under the microscope” for your ears. When listening, pay attention to the Rhythm & Stress, and start preparing to change the way you talk.
Imagine you have to play a character for which you have to speak differently, so forget about your native speech, and be opened to a new rhythm. This means you will talk as fast, soft, sharp, rhythmic as native speakers, stop in the same places as they do etc.
Good Tips for your new accent acquisition:
General Tips Include: to use good headphones, listen to native speakers only, and don’t learn other languages or accents at the same time, as your brain might get confused and not learn any of them.
Repeat: At first you will pronounce a word or a few like a test. You do that to compare the difference between how you sounded, and how a native speaker sounds. See which sounds are new, which you can mimic and which you can’t.
Imitate: After repeating, you will perfect your pronunciation and rhythm. By using trial and error, pronounce the same word over and over again, change the position of your mouth or tongue (articulation), and your pitch each time you pronounce the word.
Whether you’ll move your tongue more, or place it in different position, your goal is to pronounce the same word and make changes in your mouth as you go until you sound as close as possible to a native speaker.
Try a technique called shadowing: Listen to a continuous recording, this can be a movie, or the radio, and repeat a sentence as soon as you hear it. By repeating a word or sentence immediately after you hear it, you will notice the difference between how you pronounce it, and how it should be pronounced, and this will allow you to perfect your accent.
Example: An actor says: “ -Where do you wanna go?”, You repeat after them: “ -Where do you wanna go?”
Discover the Differences: Listen to how your native language sounds in comparison to your target language, you will discover the differences between them, and this way you’ll find out what to work on.
If the language you’re learning sounds “lazy” or “tired”, use less articulation. Or, if your desired language sounds crisp and clear, then you’ll want to exaggerate your articulation when speaking, to pronounce clearer sounds.
In essence, you have to do your best to copy native speakers and replicate the way they talk.
When learning an accent, knowing what to look for helps a lot.
If you want to know specifically what you need to do to use the accent you like, you can either hire a dialect coach or find a book that describes how to use your mouth to pronounce the needed sounds.
Repetition is key. Once you pronounce a word correctly, repeat it at least 5 times. When you will pronounce a word correctly with a different accent for the first time, it’s probably gonna feel uncomfortable, since you are used to articulate your sounds differently.
This means you will be tempted to use your native accent, so in order to internalize your desired accent you have to repeat multiple times until you get used to it.
I hope this article helped you understand that learning accents comes down to how you use your mouth to pronounce certain sounds. However, learning the accent is only a part of learning a language.