Illustration by Ginnie Hsu.
Want to pass as a native speaker in a foreign language? The true test — even more important than the size of your vocabulary or complexity of the sentences you weave — is your accent.
If you think the accent of another language is tricky and impossible to get right, you might just be using the wrong method. We admit that they are tricky — but not impossible! Here are some practical tips to improve your accent in another language, no matter which language you’re learning.
1. Learn The Phonetic Alphabet
Getting familiar with the phonetic alphabet will help you identify new sounds and provide you with some markers to navigate the language you’re learning. Familiarity with a language’s phonemes helps you recognize sounds that your ear isn’t “tuned to” natively. Once you can recognize these sounds, you’ll start noticing them way more often when speaking and listening in your new language.
By becoming aware of the range of sounds that exist in the language you’re learning, you’ll learn how to differentiate sounds that seem similar to the untrained ear, and it will make spelling easier. This can be especially helpful if you are learning primarily by reading and writing.
2. Get Familiar With The Spoken Language
Switch from theory to practice: Expose yourself as much as possible to your new language. Of course it’s easier said than done, but try to talk as often as you can with native speakers (go online if you have to!). If you have trouble pronouncing a particular word, ask people to repeat it or even record it on your phone. You can then replay it and train your pronunciation as often as you wish. You can also listen to the correct pronunciation via online dictionaries — and then you also get in the habit of learning in your new language.
Up your game by listening to podcasts or watching TV shows in the language. Even if you can’t understand everything, put it on in the background when you’re doing your chores so you get used to the particular melodies and unfamiliar sounds. You’ll see your understanding naturally improve!
3. Identify What’s ‘Weird’ About The Pronunciation
With this exposure, you’ll quickly notice that your new language has many sounds in common with your native tongue (even if those sounds are written differently). With the similarities identified, you can focus on the sounds that don’t exist in your native tongue. Resist the temptation to simply compare these unfamiliar sounds with similar ones from your native language. This might seem like a useful shortcut, but it’s a bad habit that will make your pronunciation even harder to correct in the long run.
Ignoring the peculiar sounds of your new language will, at best, make you sound silly and, at worst, result in you actually saying the wrong words! The difference between the Spanish pero and perro is a rolled R, and this difference in pronunciation equals a difference in meaning.
If you really have trouble with one phoneme in particular, use cards. Write it down along with other similar-but-different phonemes. Repeat them aloud several times. This will help you to recognize nuances and master those small differences.
4. Listen, Listen, Listen!
As mentioned in point two, the internet gives you access to plenty of audio material that can help you improve your pronunciation. Listen as much and as regularly as possible! Instead of always focusing on grammar and vocabulary, dedicate some time to the phonetic aspects of the language. Listen to short audio tracks and focus on rhythm, breaks and intonation. Try to understand what gives the sentence its fluidity and try to imitate it. If you watch a movie in your learning language, turn off the subtitles and keep your eyes on the actors’ mouths.
If you find it too hard, slow down the speed of the video or audio that you are watching (most digital media players allow you to do this — you can even slow down YouTube videos). This can help you identify and separate each syllable. If, on the other hand, your comprehension level is already quite good, you can challenge yourself by accelerating the speed. This level of concentration is good training for all those fast-talking native speakers!
5. Practice Makes Perfect
Training your accent requires some skill and patience, so don’t get demotivated if it doesn’t come immediately. For maximum efficiency, your training sessions should be frequent — no longer than two days between sessions (and every day is ideal). Collect newspaper articles, movie scripts and lyrics, and record yourself while reading them aloud. Then listen and analyze: What are your strengths and weaknesses? What native language habits are you carrying over to your new language? You can also ask native speakers for input. For example, you could upload your recordings to online communities like Judge my accent.
Accents can be tricky, but don’t lose hope! The more you speak and the more feedback get, the better your accent will become.