How to Sound Like a Native Speaker – 7 Rock-solid Tips

“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:

  • If you can't pronounce the language properly, other people will be unable to understand you.

  • If you can't distinguish between sound and/or intonation changes in the language, you will be unable to understand other people.

Secondly, if you ignore proper pronunciation and intonation, you will end up developing and reinforcing bad habits.

This is because:

  • Pronunciation, like other physical skills (swimming, riding a bike, walking) is very hard to change once a certain way of doing things becomes "automatic" for you.

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?
Simple.

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:

  • Intonation patterns

  • Sound changes
  • 
Word stress
  • 
Sentence stress

  • Silent letters
  • 
and more.

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:


  • Listening only (No reading)

  • Reading only (No listening)

  • Record yourself reading aloud and critique your performance

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.

How?

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.

Written by Luca Lampariello

Credits: Icon8

  • Martina Ge says:

    Ciao e grazie mille, Luca!

    I thought about a popular book which is translated in several languages. I could ask native speaker of the languages I am learning to record themself reading a paragraph or a page of this famous book out loud and afterwards, I can record myself and compare the recordings (maybe with help of a native speaker). I’ve been thinking about a similar method a few month ago but somehow, I forgot to start and give it a try. 😀 So, thank you for sharing this, your posts are awesome!

    Ciao!

  • Neilimar Monteiro says:

    Hi Luca.. thank you a lot!
    Item of great value.

    A cada dica você abre portas e janelas de conhecimento.

    Tchau!!

  • peter says:

    I haven’t really been practicing pronunciation of sentences. I’ve mainly been doing minimal pairs training (and repeating it out loud) and repeating all my new vocabulary (with audio and IPA). I think I’ll start putting more sentences into Anki to practice for three reasons: 1. pronunciation/intonation, as you are saying 2. to rote learn some important sentences, so I can produce them without thinking 3. Add context and to the current words I know.

    I tried one sentence a while ago in an attempt to learn new vocabulary, but it wasn’t the best for German as I really should to learn the article and the plural at the same time. But now I know this rather useless sentence off by heart. I think I will try with less useless sentences.

    • Thanks for the comment Peter!

      I think you are doing the right things.

      As long as you:

      1. Enjoy what you are doing,
      2. Do things progressively and
      3. Focus on the process and not the result,

      you will achieve your goals.

      If you have any specific questions I am here =)

      L

  • Maddie says:

    Hey Luca,
    Great article! I completely agree with your focus on phonetics. I just started learning French, and I don’t know any words yet but I’ve spent two months hard core learning and practicing the vowels, nasals and consonant sounds to make them as close to sounding native as I can by comparing my pronunciation recordings with those of natives, and working with the IPA. However I had not thought to focus on intonation and I feel I should start on that ASAP. The only thing I’m unsure about is how will I know what intonation changes signify, when I don’t actually know what the sentence is saying. Do you recommend knowing the translation of the sentence before hearing the audio? Also for a language like French, would you recommend listening to speakers that speak slower for beginners or just to listen to normal native French speech that goes at like 300 mph?

    • Hi Maddie! First of all, thanks for the nice words =)

      I would recommend that you focus on the intonation of a given sentence without knowing what that given sentence means first and then listen to it again after understanding it. In this way, you are practicing in both modes, and variety is always great for the brain.

      As for the second question, I would always first focus on audio where the sentences are uttered slowly and clearly. If you go for audio with normal speed, make sure you use a software program to slow the audio down. Especially during the first 1-2 months, it is important that you give your brain space and time to focus on the intonation AND the articulation of the single sounds, and slow audio is a great advantage in this regard.

      Hope this helps and if you have any other question or doubt I am here =)

      Hugs from Lisbon!

      L

  • Hi Luca, I loved your article and video.

    First of all, you give hope to those who think that they are not talented enough in order to acquire a native-like accent.

    Secondly, the advice you give is simple, yet extremely effective and powerful. I loved your tip about using pen and paper to mark stress, intonation and sounds. I used it when I was learning French, and I have to say that it helped me tremendously.

    Also, the advice of focusing on intonation rather than on single sounds is extremely powerful. We often ignore the importance of intonation, but in reality this is what really helps us get ourselves understood by native speakers.

    I think that getting feedback is probably the hardest part, especially for self-conscious people like me. However, I loved that you included it in your list. Just like you, I think it boosts our commitment to take our pronunciation to the next level.

    Last but not least, I belive that what you say in our video about our willingness to be someone else, summarises all the blocks that we have when trying to acquire a native-like accent. How willing are we to give up a part of our identity and embrace a new one? I find this question deeply interesting and stimulating. What do you think?

    Thank you again for posting this gem.

    Hugs,

    Gloria

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