You can sound exactly like a native speaker.
Of course, an accent isn’t the end-all, be-all of foreign language learning. Grammar, vocabulary and conversation skills are arguably more important. You can be understood and respected while still having an accent.
But there’s nothing cooler than speaking with the tone, rhythm and pronunciation of a legit native speaker.
- Why Improve Your Accent in a Foreign Language?
- The Guide to Improving Your Accent in a Foreign Language
Why Improve Your Accent in a Foreign Language?
Getting rid of your accent and sounding more like a native is the key to fully being understood.
There’s a very social aspect to language that should not be ignored. While it may seem cool to know one or more foreign languages, the goal of language is communication. Sounding more like a native enables smoother conversation, since the listener won’t be straining to make sense of your words.
Getting your accent to be not just intelligible but also perfect will put natives even more at ease, as they won’t feel like they’re speaking with a foreigner as much. (Not that there’s anything wrong with being foreign, but people might not be sure if you fully understand them or have anything in common with them.)
An accent requires a deeper knowledge of not only the grammar and rules of the target language but also of the customs and culture. There’s a famous Czech proverb: “You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.” It’s no coincidence that this proverb exists. To speak like a native, you must step into the shoes of a native speaker.
A deeper knowledge of the accent will help you understand natives better. Many language learners find themselves overwhelmed when they step out of the classroom and meet honest-to-goodness native speakers for the first time. The language can sound so different when natives are speaking a mile a minute, dropping syllables and blurring words together. To get your own accent just right, you’ll have to study the way natives speak, which in turn will boost your comprehension, big time.
At times, speaking a foreign language can feel more like a performance. In fact, thinking of it in this way helps you overcome your fears, shyness and self-imposed boundaries, which set you down the path to sounding more like a native speaker. Integrating artistic disciplines such as music and theater along with some basic language learning concepts can drastically improve the way you speak. Again, you’ll put yourself in the shoes of a native speaker. Play the role of someone who lives in the language. Then project that voice out into the world when you’re speaking.
In the end, language is more about communicating effectively—practice is more important than the theory for all practical purposes.
The Guide to Improving Your Accent in a Foreign Language
1. Listen, listen, listen
The most important skill you have to master in order to improve your accent when you’re learning a new language is listening.
Careful listening will help you get the language “in your ear.”
It will help you to better distinguish all the phonemes, or distinct sound units, of a language, giving you an overall familiarity with the language.
Before you can speak fluently in a foreign language, it’s important to be able to break it down into its distinct sounds. The first time you come into contact with a new language, a whole conversation may sound like one big run-on word. However, with time and with more exposure, you’ll start to hear syllables and words.
Obviously, the most fruitful way to listen to a language is to be surrounded by it constantly while having little to no contact with your native language. This forces you to listen because your native language can’t be used as a backup to get you out of a situation that you don’t completely understand. Your brain goes into “survival mode” and you’ll be compelled to use that language to buy food, locate the bathroom and get back to your house or hotel.
Realistically, not everyone has the luxury of living abroad and being fully immersed in their target language, but that’s no longer a deterrent. You can immerse yourself in the sound of native speech using authentic media and other sources of audio in your target language.
YouTube, language learning podcasts, language learning apps like FluentU and internet radio are great resources to utilize for this. You should pick material that you find engaging, so you stay motivated to keep at it. Before you know it, you’ll be listening to your target language every day.
Never let the room be silent. When you’re working, exercising, showering, cooking, washing the dishes, you name it—have something playing in your target language. It’s always a great idea to listen to one of these resources while doing menial tasks around the house such as cleaning or cooking. The foreign language becomes the background noise that you’ll slowly grow accustomed to.
2. Teach your mouth and tongue the right moves
Once you’re able to distinguish the basic phonemes of your target language, it’s advisable to immediately start learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Any dictionary for any language
This is a systematic method of phonetic notation that makes reading foreign words much easier because every sound has its own character. This can be learned through IPA charts and apps. The IPA Phonetics app is very beneficial because it allows you to hear the sound of each letter and it shows you a close-up video of the mouth and lips—not only can you hear the sound, but you can see how the sound is made. Both of these are very important to getting the correct accent.
Aside from listening and watching this app, it’s helpful to practice these letters on your own in front of a mirror. Are your mouth and lips making the same movements as the app? How are these movements different from those in your native language? Becoming conscious of these can help you distinguish your native accent from the foreign accent, making it easier to pick up the new foreign accent.
3. Do a sound check
Once you get down the basic mouth and lip movements, it’s time to focus on pronunciation as a whole. This means putting all the individual sounds you learned with the IPA together. It’s advisable to practice words and phoneme combinations that differ from the combinations in your native language. However, this is not enough—you have to focus on articulation and the tone of voice.
Getting the vowel sounds down pat is key to any authentic-sounding accent. Most constants are the same or at least very similar across languages, but vowels are tricky. Practicing getting vowel sounds correct greatly improves your accent. Listening to vowel sounds in your native language and comparing them to your target language is a surefire way to distinguish your native accent to that of your target language.
As silly as it may sound, tongue twisters immensely improve your accent because they focus on a certain phoneme that’s said in various words across a sentence. Tongue twisters are tricky to say correctly in your own native language, so practicing them in your target language helps you learn and get used to these difficult sounds.
Reading out loud and recording yourself helps you track your progress. This exercise is twofold. You practice both speaking and critical listening. There are many foreign-language and dual-language books which are excellent sources for practicing. Some of these books are also sold as audiobooks so you can listen to the audio version and compare it to your own practice recording.
Another interesting fact is that accents are closely connected to the culture. Trying to get into the mindset of the culture does wonders for your accent.
For example, have you ever noticed that a Midwestern American accent sounds rather flat, much like the flatlands that surround them?
Have you ever noticed that the Russian accent is in the back of the throat, as if it’s too cold to let the words out so they stay warm back there?
Did you ever notice that the romantic French language seems to speak with the lips always ready for a kiss?
Noticing these little nuances and applying them to your language learning helps bring your language to life and improve your accent when speaking.
4. Make a sweet playlist
After getting down pronunciation, you’ll notice that every language has its own melody. The words are spoken in a certain rhythm with emphasis and stresses in places much different than those in your own native tongue. Building up a music library gives you access to music that brings this out. Not only will it help you learn new words and sentence structures, it loosens you up, making it easier for you to achieve the accent of your target language.
Singing songs in your target language in your favorite genre is a great way to start. The basic rhythm of these songs will be somewhat familiar to you. If it’s music you already love, then you’ll identify with it right away. This creates an emotional connection and makes accent practice much more enjoyable and memorable. You’ll probably be mumbling the lyrics to yourself next time you’re wheeling your shopping cart through the grocery store.
Singing along with a song also helps you imitate the sounds being sung. Once you’re more advanced, rapping is an incredible way to practice improving your accent. Like tongue twisters, rap tends to be fast and with all the rhyming it can be a challenge to learn—but it provides immense benefits.
When singing it’s important to be emotionally present—feel the rhythm and become part of the song. Focus not only on the music of the song but on the music of the language. Singing helps you exaggerate this, which improves your accent.
5. Act out the role of a lifetime
Lastly, every language has its own mentality.
This mentality forms the culture which affects the language. So, why not become an actor?
Act out the language! Embrace the emotions that are shown or not shown. Language isn’t just words—gestures, expressions and body language play a huge part in unspoken communication. Embracing these help you to break free of your own native language and culture, allowing you to enter into the world of your target language. This is the only way to truly speak like a native.
Practicing reverse mimicry is an acting technique that helps improve your accent. This is when you speak your native language in the accent of your target language. With this, you’re practicing the accent without any of the worrying that may come along with speaking in your target language. The accent is much easier to achieve in this manner. Once you realize that you’ve got the accent down while speaking in your native language, it’s an easy transition to use it when actually speaking in your target language.
Don’t forget, speaking a language is a means of interacting more effectively with native speakers.
The less you sound like a foreigner, the more easily you’ll be understood.
On a more personal level, achieving a foreign accent helps you sound more confident and fluent, thus making it easier for people to engage in conversation with you.
Despite this, you should never be ashamed of where you are in learning a foreign language.
Even if you’re a complete beginner and are worrying about your rough accent, get out there and try your best!
Start practicing a foreign accent at the beginning of your language learning journey.
You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!