Speaking a second language to a native level is the benchmark for success in the eyes of most language learners. Achieving a native level means fluency in the four key areas: reading, writing, speaking, and listening, as well as beautiful, clear pronunciation.
Pronunciation is undoubtedly important, but does accent matter? This is a hot topic. Academics and teachers all over the world have very different views on the importance of accents but my view is pretty simple - what they think doesn’t matter! What learners want, what you want is all that matters. And my experience tells me that most language learners want to acquire a native standard of communication, with an accent that allows them to fit in rather than stand out.
Train your accent as an actor would
Language students will usually think about accent, pronunciation, and voice production in a very different way from that of native speakers. Native speakers, whether they are actors or public speakers, may work with a voice coach to help them to improve their pronunciation and speaking confidence, or master their desired accent.
When improving speech and pronunciation, the difference between the training of language learners and native speakers can be huge. This is understandable because although the desired outcome is the same, the teachers and the approach are different. Language learners learn from language teachers, whereas native speakers learn from voice production and pronunciation/elocution coaches.
There is so much that language learners (and teachers) can learn from the pronunciation and elocution training that public speakers and actors undertake. Let’s look at shadowing as an example.
What is shadowing?
When an actor is training to confidently perform with a different accent to the one they usually have while speaking, learning the theory of the target accent is helpful but it’s not enough. The best way to learn is to take action!
Shadowing is one of the most effective ways to build your familiarity, competence, and confidence in your target accent. So what is shadowing?
Shadowing is the process of speech replication. It’s quite straightforward really, you choose a piece of audio from a speaker with the speaking pattern that you want to acquire and you copy, word for word, the speech, pronunciation, intonation, and flow of the speaker.
You start off one word at a time until you have all the pronunciation perfected, then move to full sentences, then passages, and eventually, to the full speech. By the end of the exercise, you should be able to recite the whole piece of audio, word for word, with clear pronunciation, confidently.
Shadowing is specifically the final stage when you can recite the speech in tandem with the speaker, imitating them perfectly, as a shadow of their voice.
Why is shadowing great for language learning?
Interestingly, in terms of overall speaking skills, shadowing is much more beneficial for language learners than for native speakers. Let’s have a look at why.
Imagine you are working with a 300-word speech. The speech will probably consist of 10 sentences, each with its own grammatical structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Throughout the process, you become very familiar with the speech, learning each line fluently, maybe even off by heart.
Whether you are conscious of it or not, you are now involved in deep learning. This style of learning allows lessons to stick with you for the long term - especially if you revisit and revise the speech at a later date.
With this method, you learn new words and gain a detailed and deep understanding of the intonation and pronunciation. You’ll get a good understanding of the flow of the sentences and you’ll learn them so well that adapting them to use in different ways in the future will be easy.
In short, if you do it properly, you’ll learn so much more about the language you use from your shadowing exercise than mere pronunciation.
Admittedly, this process is a bit more difficult for language learners than for native speakers, but the benefits are greater and the effort is certainly worth it.
What’s the best content for shadowing?
It’s advisable to take care when selecting your shadowing model and material. Lay good foundations and you can build with confidence. Choosing an inappropriate model can create more problems to rectify in the future. So there are three things to consider when choosing someone to model.
Firstly, do you want to sound like them? Secondly, do they make many mistakes? You may be surprised to learn that native English speakers do not all have the same level of English. And some make a lot of grammatical errors. Finally, is there enough content available for you to use for shadowing? Copying famous actors is not necessarily the best idea because they often change their voice or accent between roles in different movies.
One great way of finding content for shadowing is to find a good pronunciation course in your target language. For English learners looking to improve their pronunciation (Affiliate Link), I offer a comprehensive online course consisting of 180+ videos and 5000 audios, which is more than enough material.
If you choose a good teacher who also publishes a lot on youtube, that’s another great resource, and it’s free!
How do I know what part of my pronunciation I should focus on?
One great way to find out what you need help with is to be an active listener. While shadowing, try to identify a mismatch between your speaking part and the model you are imitating.
Using a recording device will help you to compare. Be objective! Try to see your recorded voice as someone else who you are assessing so that you are fair in your analysis.
Write down all the words and phrases where a mismatch occurs. Then try to identify a pattern. Are all the words containing the same vowel sound or do they all begin with a TH, for example?
If you want further help, you can ask an accent coach to complete a pronunciation assessment. Pronunciation or accent assessments will help you to identify the areas of your speaking that need the most improvement. The great thing about focusing on the areas of most need is that it will also make the most difference in a short amount of time. This way you can turbo-charge your improvement.
Follow up with lots of speaking practice.
Developing and maintaining clear, articulate, and confident speaking with accurate pronunciation is a skill that takes practice.
However, getting real practice in your chosen language can be hard. Practising with a speaking coach is very expensive. Practice in language classes can also be expensive, particularly as you need to get hours and hours of practice under your belt.
So what do you do?
My recommendation is to find one or more conversation partners. You can do this face to face or online. There are lots of places where you can meet like-minded people with whom to practice. You can use websites like MeetUp to find both online and offline communities in hundreds of cities.
If you are an English language learner, you can get real English speaking practice in my Conversation Club, where students from all over the world get together in classes structured by native English speaking teachers.
For the best speaking practice, you should try to find a fun, supportive environment where you are not afraid to make mistakes. Building your speaking confidence in a relaxed way will help you to feel capable when you encounter more challenging, real-world situations.
3 simple steps to using shadowing to perfect your accent, in any language
Now you know everything you need to know to get started with shadowing, here are three simple steps to perfect your accent.
1. Identify great content for shadowing
Find content creators or famous people with a good backlog of material that you can use for your shadowing exercises. Don’t overthink it though, you can also just find one piece of material to get started with.
2. Focus on the hardest parts
Listen through the piece and identify the parts that you find hardest to imitate. Work through the shadowing exercise until you’ve perfected it.
3. Practice, practice, practice!
Exercise your speaking muscles and use your new pronunciation skills in real conversations. Keep a record of the material you’ve used in your shadowing to return to refresh and revise in the future.
Have fun, and good luck on your language learning journey!
Anna Tyrie is head teacher at English Like A Native. She has 15 years of experience as a British English pronunciation coach and teaching English as a second language. Her interest in excellent voice production and pronunciation came during her training at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where she gained a first-class honours degree in Speech and Drama.