Go Native: Polish your Accent from the Start

WHY ACCENTS ARE IMPORTANT

Some linguistic theorists explain that we have accents to mark our tribal affiliations to separate us from others. People like to speak to someone who sounds like them. It makes them feel comfortable. While light or medium accents in other languages are acceptable, if someone speaks with a heavy accent in another language, it can be very difficult for native speakers to understand them. Some native speakers may avoid communicating with people with bad accents because it sounds as though the language learner is butchering their language. In those cases, both the listener and speaker get frustrated. There are those who may write perfectly in another language and know grammar even better than native speakers. However, if they have poor pronunciation, their grammatical knowledge will be practically useless in verbal communication.

I can attest to the importance of accent. I can just say a few words in a foreign language and native speakers will automatically tell me how good I am in their language, even before I produce any complex sentences or use sophisticated vocabulary. In fact, even when I do make some small mistakes with grammar, people still say I speak impeccably. My accent and excellent pronunciation almost deafen native speakers to my mistakes.

WHY SHOULDN’T I BE A PARROT AS SOON AS I START A NEW LANGUAGE?

As adults, we are eager to speak as soon as we start a language class. Our teachers ask us to repeat after them on the first day. This defies good reasoning when it comes to how we process sounds. As babies, we listen for almost a year before we start speaking. Though in adolescence or adulthood we may not learn languages in the same way we did as infants, we could take a lesson from that period of our lives and listen to our target language before trying to emit its sounds.

Languages have a range of frequencies. Your target language may have sounds in higher or lower frequencies than you are used to hearing in your mother tongue. When we try to make sounds that we are not used to hearing on Day One of language class, we are most likely going to incorrectly make the sound. This will be even worse if our language teacher is not a native speaker and pronounces the words with an accent. If on Day One we say words incorrectly and then continue to reinforce our accented speech as we learn the language, it will be super hard to rewire our brain and change our accents later on. As we all now, it can be difficult, if not painful, to modify our habits.

HOW TO LISTEN

Here are some listening tips that you can use to tune yourself to your new tongue. They are excerpted from my book, Language is Music: Over 70 Fun & Easy Tips to Learn Foreign Languages. (The book has tips on how to use music, TV, radio, movies and the Internet to learn foreign languages in a fun and inexpensive way.)

1. Listen Carefully
Learning a new language means you have to change your key and tune. Take in the sounds of the language as though you were listening to a new piece of music. Even if you are just a beginner and barely know any words, you can still learn by listening. Pay attention to how people speak. Does it seem like they are reading a phone number or rattling of a list of numbers? Are they angry? Happy? Shut off your brain and inclination to interpret to analyze. Listen to the words and to your intuition.

2. Relax
Find music in your target language that you like. It does not matter if at first you do not understand the lyrics. You may start singing along without even knowing what you are singing. Relax and close your eyes. Turn off the lights. Lie down or sit in a comfortable position. Do not try to understand the words, just listen. Give yourself the time to simply listen and not do anything else. Your mind needs to be calm in order to absorb the sounds. Your ears need no other distractions to let them properly hear all the high, medium and low frequencies of the language. Do this regularly.

3. Emphasis
Where is the emphasis in the word? Many times people mispronounce words in another language because they accent or emphasize the wrong part of the word. For example, in Hungarian, the emphasis is always on the first syllable of the word. Sentences in Hungarian always have a predictable sound. The emphasis will never be on the last syllable of the last word, as may happen in other languages when someone is trying to stress something in particular.

Remember. Listen first. Talk later.

Susanna Zaraysky

About the author
You can find out more listening tips and suggestions of how to make language learning fun with music, TV, radio and movies in Language is Music (www.languageismusic.com).
Susanna speaks seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian) with excellent accents because she learned languages with music and the media. She has also studied Hungarian, Hebrew and Arabic. After teaching English in Argentina, Bosnia and the United States, she realized how to make foreign language learning fun and easy through listening exercises and music.

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5 thoughts on “Go Native: Polish your Accent from the Start”

  1. Great article.
    It’s often difficult to make an accent in a foreign language. Students must listen carefully and many, many times. However it’s possible and nice when you’ve done it!

  2. A very interesting article for me as a trained musician learning Swedish! I have listened a lot to the natural rise and fall in vowels wherever possible; it is true, allowing time to purely immerse myself in the sounds is just as valid as actively speaking and reading. I wonder if my listening skills and discipline to practise as a musician is helping me… I think it might! Either way this article gives me the encouragement to keep going!
    Thanks! Tack! Christina

  3. Great article.
    It’s often difficult to make an accent in a foreign language. Students must listen carefully and many, many times. However it’s possible and nice when you’ve done it!

  4. I agree that day one is the time to start with accent and good pronunciation. I’ve had the same experience of people insisting I speak the language perfectly even when I make mistakes in other areas – even, as you say, when I only knew a few words of the language, but pronounced them perfectly! It really goes a long way to gaining you acceptance as “one of us” and forgiveness of minor and major mistakes. Thanks for this!

  5. I am happy by the information and facts which you have on this web blog. It exhibits how very well you appreciate this subject. Look for anything written in Spanish and practice saying the words out loud; this is a good way to improve your speech in the new language. In addition to reading from Spanish books or newspapers, you can also listen to conversations you hear in Spanish and repeat sentences to yourself. When you do this, you will start to understand the right way to use inflections and put words together into correct sentences. An added bonus is that reading out loud in a separate language–especially when you work at it–is a lot of fun. Think of how it felt to learn songs when you were a child; this can be similar.

    One trick you can use is to label the objects around you. If possible, use this technique on the things around your house and even at your job. Using this method, you’ll start learning vocabulary automatically. By gaining a thorough knowledge of the right words, you won’t later make a mistake that could prove to be an embarrassment. You don’t want to be remembered for making a gaffe or even making someone angry by using the wrong word by mistake. The reason this method of tagging works is that your mind immediately begins to think using the new language rather than your native one whenever you look at the labeled items.

    You don’t have to struggle to learn a new language. Keep in mind that Spanish is much easier to learn than many other languages. There are lots of ways to go about learning a new language. What works for someone else might not work for you. Just keep trying different learning techniques until you find one that “clicks.” Everyone had to start learning a language at some point; you too can become fluent in the language of your choice!

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