The secret to developing an awesome accent

Olly runs I Will Teach You A Language, a website that gives you practical tips and strategies for learning foreign languages. Olly speaks 7 foreign languages and publishes regular articles and videos on language learning from different locations around the world. Connect with him on Twitter,Facebookand Google Plus.

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” – W.C. Fields

When it comes to making impressions in a foreign language, accent is to spoken communication what wine is to a meal: a good wine can enhance the dining experience and even become the talk of the dinner table, while a bad bottle will, at best, put everyone in a bad mood.

In this guest post, Olly Richards talks about why accent matters, the difference between phonemes and prosody and how to develop both, how good speakers are like chefs, and how to improve your accent.

Olly Richards

As we sped through the André Rebouças tunnel that passes almost underneath Rio de Janeiero’s famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, chatting away, the taxi driver turned to me.

“So when are you coming back home to Rio?”

“I’m not, actually. I’ll be staying in the UK,” I replied.

“What do you mean? Won’t you miss home?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

“The UK is home,” I said.

With a stunned look on his face, he replied: “What do you mean? You’re Brazilian, right?

I explained that I’d only been in Rio for a short time and that I was actually born and bred in the UK, but it took me the rest of the journey to the airport to convince him that it wasn’t just a joke.

That was a special moment, one that filled me with pride for what I was able to achieve with my Portuguese, and that has stuck with me ever since.

How was I able to convince him that I was Brazilian – even with my blonde hair and blue eyes? What was it about my accent that left him refusing to believe otherwise?

This post is all about accent, and why it’s so important.

I’ll explain what I think accent actually is based on my experience learning seven languages, and what mindset and specific tactics you need to improve yours.

Why Accent Matters

Like it or not, you probably instinctively judge someone’s ability in a language by their accent within the first seconds of them opening their mouth.

It’s also natural to feel self-conscious about your own accent and what it might say about you.

Functionally, a good accent is a reflection of the ability to communicate clearly.

But there’s a lot more to accent than pronunciation and communication.  Accent brings you into the intangible, and no less important, realms of identity, psychology and society.

Accent matters because the more natural your accent is, the more authentically people will respond to you, and treat you like a friend, rather than a foreigner who needs a different kind of attention.

Now, think about what happens if your accent is unintentionally poor.

–       People think, perhaps unfairly, that you have a poor grasp of the language

–       You force the listener to strain to understand, impairing communication

–       Your message can be misunderstood

–       You appear foreign, which immediately raises cultural barriers

Your Accent is not about You

The most important thing to remember is that an accent doesn’t develop in isolation. Over the long term, it relies completely on interaction with other people.

This may sound counterintuitive, but the purpose of developing a good accent is not about sounding good.

And the criteria for a good accent isn’t how well you think you perform.  It’s the effect it has on the listener.

In other words, it’s not about you.

You’ve probably seen videos of accomplished language learners, and thought,how can I get such a good accent?

But the best learners don’t aim to just sound native-like or sound good; they want to interact more effectively with native speakers by sounding like one of them.

In other words, a better question to shift your mindset and begin working on your accent would be,how do people react to me when I speak?

The first time I really had to come to terms with this was when I began travelling to Brazil. One of my closest friends is Brazilian and she was determined to show me “the best of Brazil”, with that amazing pride and generosity that Brazilians have.

We spent New Year in a village on the beach in Sao Paulo state, surrounded by dozens of friends and family. The place itself was paradise, but the people there were just incredible. For me, a 21-year-old English guy, this was pretty special, and I was determined become close with these people and make them part of my life.

Olly Richards friends from Sau paulo

My Portuguese was poor at the time, and I spoke with a thick English accent. But with such desire to connect, I couldn’t afford to worry about my horrible English accent when I spoke Portuguese.

I had to help my friend host parties, survive long evenings at the bar, and be good company at dinner.

During the company of those amazing people, I learnt to be Brazilian. I learnt to say the right things, in the right way, at the right time, with the right emotion.

Was my accent like a native?

No-one cared.

They cared that I was striving to fit in, and to integrate with the group. As my Portuguese accent gradually improved over the years, this experience was the foundation of it all.

Phonemes: The Nuts and Bolts

To understand how to develop an accent, it is important to understand what accent is.  In simple terms, accent consists of two important elements:

1) Phonemes.  These are the nuts and bolts of the language, the individual that make up words.

2) Prosody.  This is the overall sound of your speech when you talk, the melody, and the patterns of stress and intonation in a language.

When learning a language, you’ve probably deliberately started off with Phonemes and/or come across some of the following.

Pronunciation charts or diagrams

– International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

– Audio programmes that ask you to repeat individual phonemes

– Textbook audio CDs or apps/software with single words to repeat

– Teachers or friends who correct your pronunciation of a word

These can all be useful to develop accurate pronunciation.  They’re also well catered-for among commercial language resources.

But pronouncing words is only half the story.

Contrary to what you might think, the ability to pronounce individual sounds and words is a part of the ability to string words into sentences and sentences into conversation.

Prosody: The Bigger Picture

The overall sound of your speech, prosody, is where an effective accent is really made.

Prosody, in a sense, is communication.  It is the envelope of your message, whose delivery requires the use of not just your voice but the language of your entire body.  It conveys your human, emotional side to others.

Sure, native speakers will notice if your pronunciation of individual words is off, but, in the context of natural and pleasant prosody, these mispronunciations may seem negligible, and possibly charming.

Successful interaction with others comes down to how use your voice.

– Tone of voice Are you friendly or hostile?)

Articulation Are you well-spoken or “street”?)

Emotion Are you confident or shy?

The ability to use your voice is rarely taught because ultimately it must be learnt, or even constructed, by the individual as it becomes part of their identity in the language.

This is why I always encourage people to start to find ways of expressing themselves in their target language. In this case, in Japanese:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv09DoKrJPQ[/youtube]

The Metaphor of the Chef

In preparing a multicourse meal, chefs know that having good ingredients is the minimum standard and starting point.

But the ingredients themselves are only the base of a dish.  In the process of cooking, the ingredients themselves change. They recombine to form new ingredients with other textures and flavours.

A chef knows not only what happens to various ingredients during the cooking process, but also how to control their transformations to affect the whole meal, and ultimately the overall dining experience.

A chef also knows how to make food that matches the taste of a guest and suggest wines to accompany and enhance the meal.  A great chef can create an experience that matches the atmosphere and occasion, and even the season.

The ingredients in the kitchen are like the phonemes in the language. You have to know them well and be able to produce them accurately. But just as the ingredients change during cooking, the sounds in a language change when you start speaking.

Whilst the chef has to skillfully manipulate his ingredients to create the perfect meal for his diners, the speaker of a language has to carefully manage his accent in order to get the right message across to the other person in the right way.

Great cooking requires you to look beyond the ingredients. Developing an effective accent requires you to look beyond accurate pronunciation.

How to Improve Your Accent

The main challenge is that learning to speak well means doing a lot at once.

If you’re not used to using your facial muscles to produce sounds accurately, it will be difficult to focus, in real time, on your thoughts, your message, and the social dynamics around you.

I rarely spend time working on my accent alone; instead, I speak to people (in language exchanges at first), pay attention to how they react, and work on my accent based on specific feedback.

Here are some approaches, thoughts, and specific techniques that I’ve found most helpful in developing an effective accent.

Tackle pronunciation immediately with a native speaker to perfect your pronunciation, before you develop any bad habits.

Observe native speakers in action and their voices when they interact, especially at key social moments, such as introductions or meeting friends. If you only work with a teacher, how is their voice when they greet you? This is often the most authentic moment of the conversation. TV and movies are also a good place to focus in on this.

Imitate how native speakers say common words and phrases that you’re familiar with.  Try to copy their exact intonation, and say it aloud over and over. If you’re working with audio recordings, this app is incredibly useful for this.

Copy body language too. Face, arm, and shoulder movements are intimately related in the persona that you’re developing in your target language.

Learn and sing songs. Using songs to learn languages is an effective way to focus on the pronunciation of words and the rhythm and flow of the language.

Develop mini-speeches. Writing, preparing and learning the words that you’re going to say frees you up to focus on the delivery.

– Use study material with native-like audio.  Listen to long dialogues on repeat and pay close attention to the melody of the language.

Practise whole lines of dialogues, not just single words. Try to embody the emotions of what’s being said, feel the speaker’s joy or pain, and become that person in that moment.   Similarly, with spaced repetition software, work on whole sentences rather than individual words.

– In live situations, focus on the effect on the listener, instead of the accuracy of your pronunciation.

– If possible, record and listen back to yourself speaking with native speakers. This can be rough, but you might be amazed at how you hear yourself. If you find it hard to speak with native speakers, think of ways to beat your fear of speaking.

The Bottom Line

Developing an effective accent is ultimately the result of communication, not just the means to it.

Keep your eye on the big picture, try to foster an insatiable curiosity for communication, in all its senses, and eventually your accent will form itself, and you.

  • Wesley says:

    First thanks, very interesting text.
    Second, we have people much more whiter than you here in Brazil, we have many Italians, Germans, Polishes, Ukrainians descendents here in Brazil. So a Brazilian don’t have a face, a Brazilian can be an Afro-descendent, a 100% German, 100% Japanese, the percentage is because I have friends that are grandsons of Japaneses that came to Brazil, or Germans, my dream is go to “Festival Akimatsuri” google it and you will we Brazilians Japaneses.

    • Wesley, very true! I learnt that later on when I went to SP 🙂 In Rio, however, I think it’s fair to say that I stuck out quite a bit 🙂

      • Wesley says:

        🙂 Maybe the taxi driver thought you were from the South of Brazil, or somewhere else haha
        Congrats for you amazing achievement, I know some people living here for 10 years and still have a very strong “American/English”

  • Dani says:

    Great post, Olly. I really appreciate that you share some advice on how everybody can improve his accent. Very often we hear/read/think that having a good or even native-like accents is a matter of luck or talent. But as always in language learning, it’s in our own hands 🙂

  • Marcello says:

    Seu Portugues…. esta nota 10. Voce esta de parabens!

  • JonoNihongo says:

    Nice post!I have an observation,though:
    Olly, on the “Prosody” section you mention that you are going to motivate people using Japanese. I think that after that phrase there should be a video or something of the like. I would like to see that video since I’m learning Japanese. Great work !!!

  • Rob says:

    Nice article Olly! I think it’s always interesting to look at the link between someone’s interest and involvement in a culture, and the resulting accent. Our accent is deeply tied to our personality and how we view ourselves in the world, and accents often have strong connotations and stereotypes. Many linguists have pointed out that those who develop the best accents are essentially people who are able to empathise and break down their egotistical barriers.

    Arnie’s an interesting example – here’s the (ex?) governor of California, and one of the most unmistakeable accents in the world!

    • Hi Rob, I couldn’t agree more! Arnie’s an interesting case indeed – you think his accent is so “individual” because he doesn’t empathise with others? 🙂

  • Jude says:

    It’s possible to over-emphasize pronunciation. When I started learning Russian at the university, all my teachers spoke Russian-flavored English. (Or Hungarian-flavored.) They simply sounded like intelligent people for whom English was a learned language, the third or fourth in many cases. Nowadays the younger Russians you meet tend to have an excruciatingly precise way of speaking English – it’s close enough to English so that it simply sounds like an American with some strange speech mannerisms. Personally, I prefer the more relaxed earlier style. Maybe learning from people and learning from their reactions rather than hours of drilling in the current equivalent of the language lab would have made a difference.

    • HI Jude. Yes, that’s really interesting. In both cases, the accents of those people have been the product of their environment, I suppose. As people have mentioned above, environment, personality, accent… it’s all so interrelated.

  • Davinia says:

    Thanks for this post, it’s really interesting. I don’t think a non-native speaker will ever be able to fully conquer an accent, but we can try! I think hearing and surrounding yourself with native speaker,much like you did in Brazil, is the quickest way to learn an accent. Often I find that I start attempting to speak with the accent without realising it!

  • Hi Davinia. Yes, if you’re placing yourself in the environment you want to be in, your accent will develop as a natural consequence of that. Brazil is a particularly good place for being and interacting with people 🙂

  • farah says:

    if you are a shy person .it is even more difficult to master the accent.

    • Hi Farah. Perhaps, in the sense that you might not talk to so many different people. However, if you can find a small group of friends (which is possible for everyone) then you can definitely get all the exposure and practice you need to develop a good accent.

  • Aah, loved this. I’m much obsessed with accents myself, for the very reasons your gave here actually. My English accent is quite a lost case, since I’ve spoken many years without paying much attention to it (and almost never with native speakers), even though people tell me it’s good enough for a Frenchman. 😀 But otherwise it’s clearly the best way to flip the switch and become someone else. Hard to tell exactly what’s cause and what’s consequence, and both are probably mutually interacting, but improving your accent requires you to “let go” and when you start adopting the right prosody you also start feeling different…
    I find great to observe how Olly’s face is marble still when he speaks Japanese on the video above, and much more animated when he’s speaking Portuguese ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-FEVHpCbKg for instance). And clearly the moments when the accent is at its best are when we see more hand gestures and head nodding (for the Portuguese at least, I can’t tell for the Japanese! but Olly *looks* very Japanese to me!).

    • Hey Cedric. That’s a really interesting observation. I certainly feel that too. When I speak Japanese, I find that my whole body takes on the reserved, cautious nature of the Japanese. The same is true for Portuguese, except it’s the opposite, of course!

  • Sven Schiff says:

    Great article. Though I’m still in the beginning stages of learning Japanese, I do have an anecdote that I like to tell about my time in the U.S. after studying English.

    I was born and raised in the Netherlands. I studied English at Utrecht University and went to the U.S. on an exchange program in early 2011. I had already worked on acquiring a solid American accent (while most Dutch people speak reasonably good English, we tend to have a strong accent and I wanted to fix that). Fast forward to Spring Break.

    I went hiking in Utah with a group of 11 Americans. During the introduction, I left out where I was from on purpose. For several days we talked for hours on end during our travels, and the twelve of us became quite a close-knit group. During the second half of our trip, we stopped by this gas station in the middle of nowhere. A Dutch couple on a road trip had also stopped there (I could tell they were Dutch by their accent).

    They had trouble explaining where they were going and that they were lost. Their English just wasn’t very good. My friends were trying to help as best they could, but it was hard. I decided to jump in and spoke to the couple in Dutch. They were so happy to have another Dutch person to speak to out in the desert. I gave them very precise directions (in Dutch) and had a quick chat with them about the reason for their trip (50-year wedding anniversary).

    My travel companions couldn’t believe what they just heard. Only then, six days into our trip, did I tell them I was from the Netherlands. They just looked at me in total disbelief. “But you sound just like one of us!”

    It may sound silly, but to me that was the greatest compliment I had ever received. It’ll take a lot of work before I manage to do that with Japanese, though – especially since I won’t be able to travel there in the near future, meaning Skype will have to do.

  • Sam says:

    Wow Olly that is one hell of an awesome post! Your Portuguese is mind-blowing, really impressive. As always, inspiring stuff. Thanks for the motivation!

  • Shana says:

    Hi Olly, An old friend of mine, from Spain, spent three years in the U.S. and went home with a perfect Spanish accent. She was proud to be recognized as a Spaniard and emphasized how she could communicate effectively everywhere she went. When I asked her why she never attempted to lose it she used to say “what’s the point?” I never had a really good answer for this, but you’ve really hit the nail on the head in this post; accents do matter!

    It makes me wonder, have you come across any language enthusiasts who really don’t care about their accent? My mind is blanking.

    I’m really happy to have come across this post today and am inspired to see how your efforts translated into success. I’m on a quest to lose mine through music also and look forward to checking out your blog. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kevin Goetz says:

      where did she live in USA..if she could copy a NYC accent she`d still sound odd in Boston, California, Alabama, Texas or Midwest..

  • Alessandra says:

    I so, so, so agree with you! Accent is so important!For me, being Italian, it was so difficult to “get rid of” my Italian accent which is so strong and no matter how much I tried, it always popped up here and there leaving me hopeless at times. But I knew it could be done, I had seen and hear other Italians speak English with no Italian “residue”, so I knew that I could do it too. So I worked and worked, and finally I made it…the first time someone did not know I was Italian, after having heard my English, I was floored, I just could not believe it! But accent is something you always have to work on, especially with a language you don’t speak on a daily basis, because it can slip way too easily and you can go back to your “bad habits”.
    Good job, anyway, I don’t know how it is to be able to speak 7 languages, but I bet it has to be awesome!
    Cheers

  • Jonas says:

    You do have a great Brazilian accent but we can here that you are not Brazilian, but if I had such a good accent in English I would be more than happy.

  • Ilka Helena A Tuma Mezzavilla says:

    Realmente consigo perceber que seu sotaque é “de fora” e que você não é brasileiro no primeiro vídeo. Posso perceber isso claramente, porém não tenho como negar que é absolutamente bom e que pode sim enganar e se passar como nativo! Parabéns. Na música tenho que concordar que ficou perfeito. Me enganou! Hahaha! E tenho um ouvido muito bom!

    Outro ponto já abordado aqui anteriormente. Se existe uma nacionalidade em que não se pode generalizar no quesito aparência física é a brasileira. Impossível achar estranho a atitude do taxista. Você facilmente pode ser confundido com um brasileiro do sul. Temos brancos, negros, mulatos, japoneses, loiros, árabes, indianos… É o passaporte mais roubado do mundo! Qualquer um pode ser brasileiro! 😉

    I can easily recognize that you are an outsider on the first video. But I can also say that your accent is quite amazing, and absolutely possible to seem like a native-speaker. The song video, by the way, is too much better! You fooled me! Congrats! I have a very good ear!

    Another point, addressed previously. If there’s a nationality that can’t be stereotyped, that would be brasilian. Impossible to think wrong about the taxi driver gesture. You could be easily any brasilian. From the south, maybe… We have all sort of people here: whites, blacks, browns, japaneses, blonds, arabs… we have much miscegenation! We also have the most stolen passport in the world. Anyone could be “like” brasilian. 🙂

    Very nice website, I’m trying to improve my English, as I’m trying to master my french and italian and finally start learning German. Yay! Thanks a lot for all these priceless tips!

    Obrigada!
    Thanks!
    Merci!
    Grazie!
    Danke!

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  • Emily says:

    Hi Olly, You’re obviously musically-talented, as the video of you playing beautiful guitar & singing in Portugese demonstrates. Accent has always been the easiest element of a foreign language for me to learn because I am a good mimic & I’ve been told it’s because I have sung & played an instrument from a young age. In fact, I have had to dumb down my accent at times, in order for native speakers of a foreign language to speak slower to me, so that I can understand, in situations where my vocabulary / comprehension lags behind the level of my accent. How much do you believe inherent musical ability has to do with the proclivity to develop a good accent in a foreign language?

  • Ben says:

    “Accent matters because the more natural your accent is, the more authentically people will respond to you, and treat you like a friend, rather than a foreigner who needs a different kind of attention.”
    I think it matter less than you seem to make a case for having a perfect American or other language accent. What I contend with most is your comment about how they will others will treat you as a foreigner rather than a friend and all because of your accent! People love foreign accents and a thick foreign accent is not going to make anyone love you less! We make friends with what is inside a person, Olly.

    • Kevin Goetz says:

      A NYC accent sounds foreign in Alabama or Texas and vice versa
      igual a London accent in Edinburgh..a Madrid accent in Mexico, Colombia Argentina or even south Spain..Andalucia

  • Kevin Goetz says:

    but..which accent..is the question.. in English, that of London, Sydney, New York City, Alabama, Boston,midwest USA, Toronto, Capetown..Liverpool, Cockney, Scotland..
    or in Spanish of Madrid, BA, the Canary Islands, Mexico City..or.. Bogota, the Caribbean
    even in Portuguese if you can mimic a Carioca you will still have an accent to someone from north Brazil or Portugal or Sao Paulo..

    EVERYONE has an accent

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