One of the most common questions I get asked by people is, "how do you sound like a native?" My answer to those people is always, "why do you want to sound like a native?" The reason I answer their question with a question is because I am trying to figure out what the reason why behind that Everest of a language learning goal is.
Accent or Pronunciation?
First of all, we need to separate these two things. You can have clear pronunciation which a native can easily understand; and still, it can be heard with a foreign accent. In all my years of experience with languages, I have never heard a non-native speaker of English to be able to pass as a native speaker in English 100% of the time for seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. And I would say that it's an unnecessary goal, unless you are planning to become James Bond.
Besides, even if you could pass for speaking as a native, can you take up all of their cultural knowledge too, so that you fit right in? Now that's another can of worms in and of itself.
The goal of having clear pronunciation, in order to be well understood in your new language, is a noble one. It takes time to get it right and it will pay dividends in boosting your confidence when speaking the language.
All too often, we would buy a new language book (like Teach Yourself, Colloquial, or Assimil) and then skip the initial chapter on learning the alphabet and the sounds of the language. We look straight at the first chapter on vocabulary, grammar, and dialogue -- and dive right in. But we should wait a second and rethink things.
The writers of these courses add in details, for good reason, on the sounds of a language; and they give us exercises on how to pronounce them and recognise them. We need to take some time to go over these steps so that we have a solid foundation to move forward and ensure that we know the rules on how to pronounce the sounds of the language clearly. Therefore, we can learn how to say the words more accurately. This process takes a varying amount of time. It depends on the language we are trying to learn. As well as the sounds we already have in common in relation to the language we are learning to speak.
An accent to die for
It's fine to aim for a native-sounding accent. Be wary to not let it become your obsession. Wear your identity with pride in terms of your own accent. It's nothing to be ashamed of. If you work on your pronunciation, you will find that your accent will naturally improve over time, as you speak the language with native speakers. The key to a good pronunciation is making the correct sounds, and the accent will reduce itself, at least a little, over time with practice.
What can you do to improve your pronunciation?
- Ask your italki teacher how you sound.
- Imitate the way your italki teacher speaks.
- Go through the initial chapters from your language books on the alphabet and pronunciation exercises.
- Do the pronunciation exercises as described in the course.
- Pay attention to the individual sounds and combinations of sounds.
- Look at the stresses and rhythms of the language in each sentence.
- Record your voice and compare it to the native speakers from the language books’ audio material.
If you are having trouble with certain sounds, you can:
- Look at the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) for guidance on sounds.
- Ask a native speaker the positioning of their tongue in their mouth when they speak, where the sound is made, and how the air comes out.
- Ask a native speaker for feedback on the sounds you are making. Practise with them for instant feedback.
- Try doing an exaggerated version of the pronunciation and then take it down a notch or two.
- Try imitating the accent of a language in your own language. This can really help to get under the skin of the sounds and rhythms of the language you are learning without worrying about vocabulary and grammar.
- Finally, enjoy practising. Laugh along with your teacher and other speakers if you make mistakes. It is much easier when it's funny.
You need to keep practising the sounds and continue to get feedback to improve your accuracy. This takes time. You will get there, or you will find alternative sounds for ones you find you cannot reproduce easily. Alternative sounds will keep the language understandable for the native speaker. This is something true of the rolled ‘r’ in many languages. There are native Italian and Spanish speakers who cannot roll their ‘r’s’ too, so they make it sound more like the French ‘r’ instead. It's not a problem and people understand them just the same.
Finding natives with a similar sounding voice to yours in your native tongue can also help, if that's an option. After all, there is no use in sounding like a 21 year old man with a high-pitched voice when you're actually a 40 year old woman with a gravelly tone in your native language, right? (Exaggerated to make a point). You know what they say, “imitation is the best form of flattery”.
Richard works as the Languages Director at Emoderation. He also has a website and Facebook page about language learning. You can reach out to find out about his learning techniques, which he explores in online workshops and in person for anyone interested in learning how to succeed in their language studies.