"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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
Olly Richards 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.