“What? You are not French?!?”
The girl, a Parisian herself, sat next to me, stunned. We had been chatting away in the hall of a hostel in Prague, Czech Republic, for several hours.
For all that time, she had thought that I was one of her own. Not a native Italian, but a born-and-raised français de souche (native French).
And all because I had worked tirelessly to develop a great accent in French.
With that girl, it ended up making a huge difference. The accent helped me create an instant, strong, emotional connection with her.
So much so, in fact, that she and I would go on to date for five years afterwards.
By speaking French with a native-like accent, I was speaking to her heart, even before speaking to her mind.
In fact, this is only one of the many times, episodes and ways in which a native-like accent has helped me establish a strong, solid bond with countless people all around the world.
“Ok Luca, great, I know that speaking any language with a great accent has incredible benefits. But how can I do that? It seems so difficult!”
True. It's almost impossible when you have the wrong mindset and the wrong tools.
That’s why I have decided to share my seven best tips to help you develop a great accent right from the start.
Let's get started!
Tip 1. Focus on Phonetics from the Very Beginning
When starting to learn a new language, many learners avoid focusing on their accents. Instead, they worry about collecting words and sentences, and simply "knowing" as much about their target language as they can, hoping that someday, and somehow, they will develop a great accent.
This is a short-sighted approach for many reasons.
Firstly, if you ignore phonetics—the sounds, pronunciation, and intonation of a language—you will ultimately have a very hard time communicating with anyone in the language.
This is because:
Secondly, if you ignore proper pronunciation and intonation, you will end up developing and reinforcing bad habits.
This is because:
What you need to do is focus on the phonetics of the language, I recommend that you start practicing to improve your pronunciation as soon as you can—from the very beginning of your learning, if possible.
Whatever your case may be, make sure that proper pronunciation and intonation are a priority for you. If you start early, you can avoid ever having to worry about having a bad accent.
Tip 2. Learn Intonation First, Then Pronunciation
The majority of language courses and classes available today usually teach phonetics by focusing on the pronunciation of individual sounds.
Once you have learned how to pronounce sounds in isolation, these resources will then teach the pronunciation of words, and then sentences. Intonation, if it is taught at all, is covered at the very end of the process, and often poorly.
This common method of teaching phonetics follows a "bottom-up" approach, where you start with the smallest units (sounds), and gradually combine those elements to create larger and larger pieces of language (words and sentences).
I, however, use a top-down approach. And that is what I recommend for you.
Start with intonation first, then move “down” until you focus on perfecting individual, isolated sounds.
Why follow a top-down approach, when the opposite approach is more common?
The bottom-up approach treats sounds like Lego blocks. Like small units of language that can be combined any which way without ever changing.
But this is not how sounds work. Sounds are not static; they are dynamic elements which can change depending on a number of contextual factors.
For a quick example, the phrase "want to" and "going to" in English are often reduced to "wanna" and "gonna" in normal casual speech. However, with the bottom-up approach, you might miss this common sound change, and end up sounding more stilted, and unnatural.
In certain cases, like the tonal languages of Chinese, this approach makes the learning process a real ordeal.
The top-down approach, starting with intonation, takes these important changes into account. You learn the proper intonation and pronunciation for an entire sentence or phrase at a time, with all the subtle changes and manipulations intact. Then, you can break it down into smaller and smaller pieces.
To get started with the top-down approach, you'll need to take action on the next few tips, starting with listening and reading.
Tip 3. Listen and Read to Every Text
To learn the intonation and pronunciation of a sentence or phrase, you'll first need a sentence or phrase to learn from.
For beginners, the best place to get sentences for accent practice is usually from textbooks and other resources specifically for learners. This is because these resources often provide audio versions of the texts they contain.
What you want to do is read these texts while simultaneously listening to their audio version.
The audio files, of course, will give you all of the auditory information you need in order to understand how to intone and pronounce the sentences properly. The text will give you an "anchor" so that you can tie the sounds you are hearing to the written symbols that represent those sounds.
This activity is extremely beneficial for improving your accent, since it takes all the guesswork out of trying to interpret how a text should be pronounced. Assuming the voice on the audio file is that of a native speaker, you now have a perfect "accent role model" to try to emulate.
The only issue with listening and reading a text is that, when you're not actively listening and reading, the printed text can't convey audio-only details like intonation, and certain sound changes.
To solve this problem, let's move on to our next step.
Tip 4. Mark & Label Phonetic Details by Hand
Written language is rarely a perfect representation of spoken language. Often, in fact, written language does a terrible job of reflecting the actual sounds of a given language.
This is particularly true for languages like English, and French, both of which have lots of "silent letters" which appear in written words, but don't have to be pronounced.
Even worse, these languages even have words that are spelled similarly, but pronounced completely differently, like English's "cough" and "though".
As learners, if we only rely on texts as they are written, we have no way to recording any of these extra details. This poses a particular problem for our intonation-first approach, since most written languages do not include written tone markers.
Luckily, there are a couple of commonplace tools that we can use to fix this problem—pencil and paper!
What I mean is this:
When you're listening and reading to a text, don't just read it on your computer screen or smartphone. If you can, get the files and print the text out, so you can have a hard copy. (Of course, if you're learning from a physical book, just use the book).
With a physical copy of the text in hand, you will then be able to use a pencil to mark up the text, and label any important pronunciation or intonation details.
You can use paper & pencil to mark things like:
Physically taking the time and effort to mark down phonetic information like this will help these elements stick in your mind, and make it easier to study the text later, even when you don't have the audio on hand.
Tip 5. Practice Pronunciation by Reading Texts Aloud
Let's assume that you've gone through all of the other steps, and currently are sitting in front of a printed, marked copy of a target language text that you've listened to and read dozens of times.
What should you do now?
For the next step, I believe you should put the audio file aside, and try to read the text aloud on your own.
Think of it like trying to sing a favorite song for the first time; you know how the song should sound, but now it's your job to reproduce the song using your own voice.
Assuming you did a thorough job of marking down precise details of intonation and pronunciation onto the printed page, this task is really all about following along with the written text, and trying to speak the sentences exactly as they were spoken in the audio file.
Go slow at first, and try to reproduce the tonal patterns and sounds of the sentences as precisely as you can. As you gain experience and accuracy, you can then try to speed things up.
Tip 6. Vary Your Pronunciation Practice by Interleaving Activities
Reading out loud isn't the only way you can practice what you've learned from the listening, reading, and text-marking steps.
In fact, I believe reading aloud should only be one of many ways that you review any text or audio that you're trying to practice.
Some other activities you can try include:
The ultimate aim here is to practice and review a text often, but in a different way each time.
The act of varying your activities in this way, which is called interleaving will greatly help the proper pronunciation and intonation stick in your mind.
Tip 7. Get Feedback from Native Speakers
Have you ever listened to a foreigner speak your language?
It's an interesting experience. Usually, even if the person speaks your language at a high level, it is very easy to hear small errors and mistakes in their speech.
That’s because native speakers are hard-wired to detect even the smallest deviations from what is considered a "native accent".
While it's easy to be intimidated by that fact, I believe you should use it to your advantage instead.
By getting accent, pronunciation, and intonation feedback from native speakers!
For example, a great way to practice your texts from earlier is to read them aloud to a native, or read them aloud and send a recording of it to a native.
If you can do that, the next step will be, simply to ask them how you did.
Though not every native speaker is familiar with the specific details of pronunciation or intonation, they all will be able to tell you when something sounds non-native, or otherwise unnatural.
Take that feedback, and use it to fine-tune your accent. If possible, you can even work with the native speaker to correct your accent and get it even closer to native-like.
If you cultivate the habit of asking for feedback and using it to correct your accent, I am certain you will always find a way to improve your intonation and pronunciation.
Start Refining Your Accent Today
As you can see, there's no magic book to read, app to download, or audio file that will make you speak like a native from the start.
Although it takes time and effort, the seven tips I’ve shared with you will give you a clear and efficient route to a jaw-droppingly good accent.
Honestly, I wish I had known all this twenty years ago. And unlike you, I had to go through a long trial-and-error process to make it happen.
I have given countless phonetic training lessons in the last ten years, and I have witnessed how the right mindset, passion, and consistency can work wonders, independently of individual talent.
So, don't get stuck with limiting beliefs.
Make a plan, take the first step, and see for yourself what’s possible.