Native accent in language learning – The method – 2/3

Single words

It is important to proceed step by step. The first step is theoretical.

Many language courses provide an overview of phonetics and they usually discuss the following:

• Pronunciation of vowels: those that are identical, similar and alien to the language of instruction.  These vowels sounds may be single vowels or they could include dipthongs

• Pronunciation of consonants: identical, similar and alien. They are divided into double consonants (if any) and consonant clusters

• Other possible combinations or features (e.g. clicks or tones etc.).

 There are analytical and theoretical tools depicting the subtleties in pronunciation. The IPA (International phonetic alphabet is well known for transcribing the sounds of languages.

The following image provides a window into the complex possible configurations of vowels within the mouth-tongue-throat apparatus:

Pitch/intonation of the entire sentence

Some courses describe the mechanics of the intonation of sentences. Most of these explanations are limited because the “musicality” of a language is a difficult feature to represent fully. This is one of the most complex areas of research in linguistics

From theory to practice

The amount of sounds in any given standard form of a language is limited.  In spite of this understanding and producing sounds often proves to be complex (even with tools such as IPA).

Some claim that listening is the most effective action in absorbing sounds.

How can we combine theory and practice?

Understanding the “mechanics” of sounds and producing them correctly is a very important step.  Overcoming this difficulty in the first 3 months of study allows the learner to devote almost 100% of their time to the assimilation of vocabulary and grammatical structures. Pronunciation usually then improves with fluency of expression.

 This can be seen as cycle in the learning pattern, as illustrated below:

Step 1: Brief introduction to the phonetics of the language

Familiarisation with the phonetics of the language.  This should not be rushed and does not require 100% understanding of the target language.  Read a once, twice or three times at most.  Listen to the corresponding recording (audio is a vital).

Step 2: Listening and reading dialogues

Reading and listen to the dialogues in your language course. Listen to the sounds of the language and pay attention to how they are pronounced in the sentence. Listening AND reading at the same time is the key operation: it allows your brain to create a link between the word and the sound.

Step 3: phonetic analysis

 Active understanding of the phonetic structure of sentences is key. Use a pencil to write directly in the book (or on a photocopy if you prefer to leave the book intact).

The phonetic analysis is my personal technique for figuring out how a sentence sounds: I use specific markers (see Part 3) to mark the pitch and intonation.  This creates a real “guide” that will allow the reader to reconstruct the intonation of a sentence without resorting to audio. To complete this analysis requires multiple playbacks of the audio material.

This step is crucial in learning how to mimic the voice, tone and accent of a native speaker.  It’s like writing a musical piece and then reading the notes whilst playing an instrument.  The main goal is to understand the music of a language. Bad pronunciation is the result of imitation without understanding.

Step 4: “extraction” and “reproduction” based on phonetic analysis

“Understanding” a text by analyzing it is the first step towards correct pronunciation.

How do we assimilate the intonation/pronunciation?

This is done by re-reading the text line by line on the basis of the markers recorded in the phonetic analysis.

Record your own voice to identify where your pronunciation sounds like or differs from that of the native.  The aim is to become more attentive and eventually self-correct.

Step 5: feedback with the help of a native speaker  

The circle closes with an absolutely crucial ingredient: contact with native speakers.  As mentioned above, the brain is an auditory filter.  No matter how hard we try, there will always be some small “gaps” in terms of intonation or pronunciation: it’s up to you fill the holes by remaining attentive and curious.  Never take anything for granted.  Feedback from a native speaker will help to fine tune any pronunciation issues.

Below, a dynamic diagram on what has been addressed:

Theory and practice


Familiarizing yourself with the brief introduction into phonetics at the start of a course is useful.  However, it is best to return to this section after you have studied a good amount of the language to fully appreciate the meaning.  I will expand on this in part three of this series on accent.

Related posts in this series

Native accent in language learning - 1/3

Native accent in language learning - 3/3

Written by Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott

Related posts

How to use shadowing to perfect your accent, in any language – Anna Tyrie
The Challenge and Intrigue of Japanese Pitch Accent: Matt vs Japan
Are You Making These Pronunciation Mistakes in Italian?
  • Hi Luca,

    Thanks for the first two articles on foreign language accents. I am looking forward to the third video and corresponding article. Using you as an example that one can learn a foreign accent I am going try to improve my Italian accent and I will work more slowly on French (one Assimil lesson every three days) and concentrate more on the accent, proncunciation, intonation and rythym.

    Roger Knight

  • Luca,

    I was just wondering, did you study linguistics in college/university? Your knowledge seems to point to that direction.

    Keep it up. Grazie Mille.

    • Dear Franco, I have a degree in Electronic Engineering, but I recently got interested in Linguistics and started reading books regarding this interesting field. Luca

      • Luca, how interesting; two unrelated fields. But hey, whatever keeps your brain sharp, go for it. BTW, love the videos…..keep them coming. 😉

  • If one is to seek tools to help him or her in the acquisition of a great accent, there is no doubt that phonetics and phonology are it.

    However, a lot of people will say that this knowledge is not necessary. After all, many people have succeeded without it. I suppose we could posit that had they known IPA or phonology, they might have done so (slightly) faster. Nevertheless, we must also recognize that having the right theory and knowledge is in itself insufficient.

    Knowing the IPA for all the sounds of a language still doesn’t tell you the detailed information you’ll need to acquire a near-native accent. For instance, how much variation is allowed until a sound becomes another, where does the boundary between 2 vowels lie, how does a consonant act in the proximity of other sounds, how much voicing, devoing or nazalisation occurs, etc. These details are difficult — if not downright impossible — to determine with the use of IPA. They vary within dialects or accents of the same language. This is the kind of information native speakers have integrated despite not knowing any theory at all.

    You can listen and you can mimick, you can learn the right IPA symbols and linguistic theory, but in my experience, you will never be able to perfect your accent unless you have the curiosity to seek the exact behaviour of a language’s sounds, the skills to analyze and understand the data, and the perseverance to establish the production habits needed to sound (near-)native. And just as the acquisition of grammar and vocabulary occur gradually, so does the acquisition of accurate pronunciation.

  • Per me analizzare la fonetica all’inizio è molto difficile, spesso credo di aver sentito un suono o di ripeterlo correttamente ed invece poi scopro di averlo sbagliato completamente.
    Il materiale pre-analizzato da questo punto di vista mi aiuta molto.

  • I’m a student of linguistics and I must say, you have summed this up like a real schola! Do you a backgrund in linguistics in anyway or have you just learnt this stuff yourself through books? Keep up the good work

    • Hi. Thanks for swinging by 🙂 I have/hold a degree in Electronic Engineering, and all this comes from sheer experience (and a lot of “thiking and cogitating”). I’ve recently started reading books on phonetics and liguistics. I find the topic fascinating. Thanks for the nice words! Luca

      • Could you please list some specific book titles you would recommend for learning “sentence flow”?

  • Hi Luca!

    Could you please re-upload the PowerPoint presentation? I would be immensely grateful 🙂 Keep it up with your Polish!


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