Native accent in language learning – 1/3

Pronunciation and accent form an interest area for study and debate amongst language enthusiasts.

Speaking like a native in a foreign language is what many want and few achieve, but:

  • Is it an effort worth making?
  • Is it achievable for everyone?
  • Should we simply be happy with an clear pronunciation and sufficient vocabulary and grammar to communicate our thoughts?

Some see speaking with a native or near-native accent as a reachable goal.  All you need to do is put in enough hard work.

What are the barriers to acquiring a native-like accent? 

 1) Psychological factor: Speaking with native speakers in their language can have an emotional impact on our oral abilities: Fear of

  • Appearing clumsy
  • Saying something inappropriate
  • Filling lulls in conversation

2) Physical factor: The brain is an "auditory filter" and its ability to perceive and distinguish sounds diminishes with age. This can make reproducing certain sounds more difficult.

To obtain a native-like accent, you must follow two steps. Practice correct reproduction of both:

  1. Single words
  2. Whole sentences

Single words

Sounds can be put into 3 main categories:

  1. Sounds that exist in the native language(s)
  2. Sounds that are similar
  3. New sounds

Sound mapping

The brain uses sound mapping to acquire and recognize similar sounds to those that occur in the native language (For more details see here).

 The new and similar sounds are registered in the brain as being the same as those that are present in the native tongue.

New sounds

Both similar and new sounds require the brain to create a link between sound recognition and sound reproduction.  This process can become a stumbling block for the learner.

Sentence intonation

A common challenge for the learner is to use correct sentence intonation.  This process knits together the individual sounds to produce the whole.

One must consider pitch, tempo and sentence intonation.

 Intonation, which is sometimes referred to as prosody has recently become an object for linguistic investigations.

The accent and stress of any language make up its unique rhythm.  The learner should always pay due care and attention therefore to this is key feature.  Tonal languages depend on this linguistic feature to convey meaning.  Using Mandarin as an example of how this works.

 Tonal languages rely on intonation for meaning.  Take these examples in Chinese:

“Mā” (妈) (first tone) means "mother"

“Má” (麻) (second tone) means "hemp"

“Mǎ” (马) (third tone) means “horse”

“Mà” (骂) (fourth tone) means "insult"

There is also a fifth tone, which is called neutral, for being devoid of tone (you can find further information here  and you can hear how Chinese tones sounds here ).  

Tones in Chinese use pitch of voice (like in music) to change the meaning of words with identical consonants and vowels.  In English we do this to change meaning too. Our pitch rises at the end of the sentence to ask a question or falls to give a strong command the words.  The difference is the meaning of the word in English remains the same.

Italian is not a tonal language. However we can use the Chinese tones to describe the pronunciation of single words in Italian.  It is particularly useful to explain the tonal shift in Italian sentences.

In Italian, the main stress is on the individual accented syllable.  This is why Italian sounds musical to non-native Italian speakers.

Consider a single word first:

“Prendiamo” is a word with three syllables.  It has the main stress on the second syllable.  The first syllable is pronounced with high tone (similar to the first tone in Chinese).  The second syllable has a falling tone (similar to the fourth tone in Chinese) and the third one has a low tone (similar to the neutral Chinese tone).

To illustrate this with tonal markers:

Prēn-dià-mo (let’s take)

In a sentence, things change:

“prēndiāmō l’āutōstràda” (let’s take the highway)

The syllables of “prendiamo” shift” because the whole sentence’s main word is “the highway”.

 Not taking  into account this vowel shift, the result would be:

" Prēn-dià-mo l’āutōstràda ",

This would not sound right to a native speaker.

Conclusion: perfect single word pronunciation does not equal native-like reproduction of full sentences.

Advantages of speaking with a near- native accent 

Assuming that we have reached a good understanding of the language and a reasonable level of fluency, speaking with a native-like accent offers many advantages:

Socially: It is usually a good first topic of conversation when meeting a native speaker.  It can help to establish commonality, so you don’t appear so foreign.   

In terms of communication: The native speaker does not need to strain to make an effort to understand you.

Culturally and linguistically: The native speaker does not feel the need to adjust their speech or conversation topic to accommodate you.

Psychologically: You feel more confident speaking to natives because you know you are easily understood.

Phonetics is a wide area for consideration. Investment in exploring the potential of speaking with a near-native accent unlocks social and emotional benefits. I can give you the tools to speak like a native. It is possible to sound near native.

Written by Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott

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The Challenge and Intrigue of Japanese Pitch Accent: Matt vs Japan
Are You Making These Pronunciation Mistakes in Italian?
  • Great article. One really does need to “break the pronunciation down” in order to have a good accent. I worked on my nasal sounds in Portuguese and my rolled “R” in Spanish for quite some time and I still listen to try and sound like the Brazilians and the Chileans.

  • Great article Luca, and a subject very close to my heart. It was interesting to have Chinese tones used as examples for Italian intonation. It would have been even better to have a sound file of you saying ‘prendiamo’ and ‘prendiamo l’autostrada’, so that we could hear precisely how the intonation changes.
    I will be listening even more carefully to natives after reading this.

  • I think that learning a new language is a very wonderful experience that every human being can enjoy. To do so, we have to create a world in the language. One of the most important factures that can help us acquire a language perfectly and make us understood is to work on our Accents and try to improve our pronounciation. It goes without saying that pronouncing words clearly gives your interlocutor a good impression about you! and of course that helps a lot to better communicate with him/her. to make things clear, I should say that adopting an Accent and trying to listen as much as possible and practicing it would pave the way for any learner to learn it perfectly to the extent that speaking with a good Accent can give a good boost to your learning in that language.

  • Dear Davide, you are definitely right. I prepared a long audio file for this post but the MP3 player which I used to record my voice with broke down and I have to buy a new one. Hopefully I’ll solve these minor technical problems very soon and start creating podcasts to be coupled with scripts. Luca

  • Hi Luca!

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention, among the psychological barriers to acquiring a native accent, how many people feel a sense of betrayal when trying to acquire a foreign accent. I’d even venture that it’s the most pervasive barrier.

    When you did deeper and you ask people if they want to sound like a native speaker of language X, you’ll often find — especially in certain cultures — that this is not really something they want, that they would feel like they were lying or hiding their true identity.


  • Tchuss Luca,
    what do you think about pronunciation courses? Could they be helpful to a beginner?


  • Dear Alexander,

    I think that the main factors, or “hurdles” that keep people from learning languages are mainly psychological and physical, rather than cultural. I am convinced that the majority of people, no matter where they live and how they have been brought up, see speaking another language with a native-like accent as a great achievement. Although speaking a language fluently and with a great accent is somewhat like an acting performance, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with hiding one’s identity. Most of the people I’ve met so far have expressed this point of view. Anyways, my experience is limited in time and space, and I am sure that there are people who think the way you suggested. So thanks for pointing that out 🙂 Luca

  • hi luca, i’m not sure if this is the right place to ask you something that is outside of pronunciation and intonation but please if you can, whenever you have time can you please answer me this questions about language learning. i am a serious language learner or enthusiast and i am trying to figure out a technique that i can use to study my languages. i rather prefer studying one language at a time and i love and admire your technique. i am sure many people have already told you this but you are an inspiration and its an honor to view your videos. my questions are these, with your method when are you usually able to start reading a book? and what type of books do you usually start with? what other kind of input do you do outside of assimil in the first year? how many hours a day do YOU spend on an assimil dialogue ? do you do any other activities outside assimil during the first year? you said in one of your videos that you use teach yourself audio/books to start the language, how long does it take you to get through the teachyourself program before starting assimil? i know this is alot of questions and i can probably ask more. its funny because i am usually not the kind to ask questions. i usually just listen and if i don’t understand something, i usually don’t ask but, this language learning thing is changing my constitution i need help. please help!

    jonathan. 😉

  • Dear Jonathan,

    first of all: yeah, this is definitely the right place to ask me questions 🙂

    1. With your method when are you usually able to start reading a book?

    It really depends on the language I am learning. In the case of Portuguese, I could have started reading books after 5-6 months (even earlier) due to the similarity with both Spanish and Italian. Chinese is/was, of course, a different ball game. I apply the back-and-forth translation only during phase 1 and phase 2, when “deliberately” learning on language courses of books. Let us say the time span of these two phases can be1-2 years. In most Europeans languages I have learned so far, 1 year and a half – 2 years is enough to be able to enjoy an article or book

    2 What type of books do you usually start with?

    ASSIMIL. I used Teach Yourself for Swedish and Dutch but I no longer use it for getting started. It is a good book, but I prefer ASSIMIL (it is perfect for my technique/method)

    3. what other kind of input do you do outside of assimil in the first year?

    I mainly rely on ASSIMIL for the first 6-8 months, and then, once I get a fairly good grasp of the basics, I add something else (usually another book) while still following ASSIMIL. Once I’ve finished ASSIMIL, I rely on totally new materials

    4 how many hours a day do YOU spend on an assimil dialogue ?

    I’d talk about “minutes” rather than “hours”. It The real key is not quantity, but regularity and quality of your study: 30 to 90 minutes of focused and entertaining learning every day are incredibly effective

    5 do you do any other activities outside assimil during the first year?

    See answer 3 🙂


  • thank you very much luca for answering all my questions. you made my day. lei è proprio gentile! ciao! grazie mille!

  • Super informative article. This is one of the first times that I’ve read about sentence intonation, which I find really interesting, and I haven’t thought much about it before. When it comes to learning language intonation, are there are any resources that you can recommend to improve the knowledge of where the stress will fall?

    • Hi Cher 🙂 There are plenty of interesting books out there. What language are you interested in? L

  • The above points gvn by u and the commenys really seems good i appreciate that but i hav 1 major doubt in learning english language, iam average speaker but iam trying hard to speak like a native speaker …. My doubt is could i learn a language by listening and watching conservative talks and english movie

    • Dinesh,
      This is a large undertaking. English has almost as many dialects as accents. In America our people are so poorly spoken I would argue that almost no one is fluent in English anymore. I would advise you to learn the London, England; or Japanese-American accent first. They are more gutteral and consistent in pronunciation and grammar than Americans. After you have theirs down, it would be OK to get to work on that shifty California(TV) American accent. Cadence is most important. Good luck!

  • Hi Luca, I’d really appreciate some advice regarding accents. I speak Hebrew and French, both with a foreign accent, and I’d really like to improve in this area, especially in Hebrew. Any ideas? Thanks, Alice

    • Listen to their music. Brittany Spears has a thick southern accent. Have you ever heard it on her album? Music is the fastest way aside from immersion to learn accent. It generally only represents the “high” or “official” accent of a nation, though. I find local accents are represented by a single word or vowel sound. Try to find that word and then build off it. You’ll know it when you find it. It should feel like a minor epiphony.

  • Hello!

    You’ve talked about using written passages with audio, and marking intonation and sentence blocks, but after doing this, what do I do? Should I consciously remember and think about the intonation as I speak, or will close study of it like that just help it come naturally?

  • I have had an inborn talent (or talented teachers) for learning languages my whole life. I have no trouble immediately recreating any accent I have encountered simply by listening to it. I don’t mean that I can echo sounds accurately and precisely. I can learn a language in a classroom or my home in 6 months. Coupled with their television or radio, I can make jokes and lead conversations with native speakers in the same 6 month period. Upon meeting natives of a given town, I can recreate and even predict their accent in less than a day. If I am honest about my origin and first language these natives will believe I am joking to the degree that I may need to repeatedly insist that I am not a native speaker. I have even had to speak several languages, dialects, and accents to prove myself.
    I have no need for your method, and since I cannot teach my talent, have no intention of competing with your business. I simply want to know if there is anything I can do to make use of this skill. I have looked everywhere, but have only been able to enjoy it as an ice breaker with the many foreigners I’ve met. Since I do not qualify for military service; I cannot find a way to make use of it. I’m hoping maybe you have some ideas. I’m not looking for pay either, though I’ll not turn it down.

    Thank you,

  • Can I have the script for your audio, If you like to direct A link? For the pdf, e I would like to talk to you about the course, I love your method of teaching, you are a great teacher, Yes I am bad in lurking in computing, that is my weakness, one problem. Please reply to this Thank you.

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