Has this happened to you?
You're in school, and you're reading a text out loud in front of the entire class.
You wanted to decline, but you couldn't. This is a requirement, and you'll be receiving a grade for your performance.
Standing in front of the room, you notice your mouth is dry, and your hands are trembling.
When you finally try to speak, you encounter one of two realities:
- 1Your words come out slow and disjointed, like staccato notes on a piano.
- 2Your words come out fast and mumbled, like a movie on fast-forward.
Regardless of whichever reality you’ve experienced, I'm sure you will agree that the result is unnatural; when reading out loud to others, we rarely speak in the same way we would in a normal, low-stress situation.
This happens in language learning as well. Learners who do not practice speaking and reading out loud usually speak with a stilted and uncomfortable rhythm that is difficult or uncomfortable for others to follow.
In order to have the greatest impact on the native speakers you converse with, you must learn to speak your target language at a natural rhythm and speed.
In this article, the final installment in our three-part series on How to Sound Like a Native Speaker, I will teach you how to do just that.
Step 1: Listen & Read Again
If you want to be able to speak and read at a native-like pace, you must first be very familiar with how fast and how smoothly native speakers actually speak.
The best way to do this is to listen and re-listen to an audio file of native speech that you can try to imitate.
Luckily, if you've read the previous article in this series, you've already done all this.
By following along with the Listening and Reading technique, you've:
- 1Selected a target language text
- 2Listened to its audio multiple times
- 3Read the text multiple times
- 4Marked pauses in the text
- 5Marked intonation changes in the text
For now, I'd like you to simultaneously listen to the audio and read the text two or three more times. If it's been a while since you read the text, this will be your chance to reacquaint yourself with its content.
Here's our example text, in case you don't have your own:
October 31 is a night for fun and fright. Children of all ages dress up in costumes. There are little girls who dress up as fairies, princesses, ballerinas and the like. There are little boys who dress up as firefighters, policemen and superheroes. You also have the children who dress up as furry animals or ghoulish ghosts. One thing is certain, no matter what costume you choose, there is sure to be a lot of candy and chocolate involved on Halloween.
I can remember going 'trick or treating' as a child and using a pillow case as my goodie bag. This ensured that I would have plenty of room for the ridiculous amounts of chocolate that I collected. I remember having many stomach aches in the week that followed Halloween. I probably had enough candy to last a month, but I ate it all within a few days. Some parents take their children's candy and will only allow them a certain amount each day. However, my mom wanted to get it over with. She thought it was better to let me eat it all at once than to have to listen to me whine about candy for a whole month.
You might have the impression that Halloween is just for kids, but you would be wrong. Many adults take part in the festivities as well. For example, there are many parties that take place all over the city. Most people dress up in costumes and often there are prizes given for the best ones. Some adults spend months, and a lot of money, coming up with unique and elaborate costumes. I believe that some adults have more fun on Halloween than most children do.
Furthermore, many adults and teenagers like to set off fireworks and firecrackers. There are often wonderful firework displays at parks and schools. Usually they are put on by firefighters to make sure that nobody gets hurt. October 31 is generally not a peaceful night, so if you think you will be going to bed early, you had better think again. Often there are teenagers setting off firecrackers until all hours of the morning.
Step 2: Slowly Read Each Sentence to Yourself
Remember in the last article, when we used a pencil to mark the pauses and gaps between sentence chunks?
In normal speech, those pauses are very important, because they indicate where the flow of speech stops.
Outside of these pauses, spoken words actually tend to flow together into one long combination of sounds. This is why, when hearing a language you don't know, you can't tell where one word ends and another begins. Pauses are the only real "boundaries" in spoken language, and they happen after each chunk, not after each word.
So, to read your text like a native, you need to make sure the words within each chunk sound like they're connected, or merged, without any unnatural gaps.
Try to do this now, but do it while reading your text out loud very slowly.
When reading, take special care to:
If you need an example to work from, here's the example text again, with pauses ("//") included:
October 31// is a night for fun and fright. Children of all ages // dress up in costumes. There are little girls // who dress up as fairies//, princesses//, ballerinas// and the like. There are little boys// who dress up as firefighters//, policemen// and superheroes. You also have the children //who dress up as furry animals // or ghoulish ghosts. One thing is certain,// no matter what costume you choose,// there is sure to be a lot of candy and chocolate// involved on Halloween.
Step 3: Gradually Increase Your Reading Speed
Our next step is actually three steps in one:
- 1Read the text aloud again, at the same slow pace as the last step.
- 2Read the text another time, but at a slightly faster pace (but slower than normal speed).
- 3Read the text at normal speed.
At each separate speed, focus on maintaining volume, rhythm, articulation, and connection between sounds, just as before. If you have difficulty with any of these at a particular speed, you can either slow down again, or keep reading the text at that speed before moving on.
Once a certain pace is comfortable for you, you should then focus on practicing the intonation patterns, which we marked in the last text using rising and falling arrows:
October 31// is a night for fun // and fright. Children of all ages // dress up in co-stumes. There are little girls // who dress up as fairies//, princesses//, ballerinas//and the li-ke. There are little boys // who dress up as firefighters//, policemen // and superheroes. You also have the children // who dress up as furry animals // or ghoulish ghosts. One thing is cer-tain//, no matter what costume you choose//, there is sure to be a lot of candy and chocolate // involved on Hal-lo-ween.
(Remember, a rising arrow means that the pitch of the corresponding sound should go up (like a question) and a falling arrow means that the pitch of the corresponding sound should go down (like a statement)).
The goal is to gradually increase your reading speed while still speaking in an accurate, clear, and natural way. That being said, do not move on to a faster speed until you feel highly comfortable reading at a slower speed.
Step 4: Record Yourself & Analyze Your Performance
In the previous step, you were like a musician, preparing for a on-stage performance.
You took your marked and annotated text, and practiced it like a piece of sheet music, again and again, until you could perform it accurately at precisely, even at a native speed.
Now it's time to stop practicing and start performing in front of a crowd.
Who will you perform in front of, you ask?
Allow me to explain:
At this point, you should locate your nearest audio-recording device (e.g. digital camera, computer, smartphone, etc.) and set it up so that you can record yourself reading your text once or twice at normal speed.
Do that now, if you can.
When you have your recording ready, listen to it a few times. On the first couple of listens, you'll likely notice that you don't like the sound of your voice on the tape. That's okay! No one does, at least at first. You'll get used to it quickly.
Once you're sure you can listen to your voice without cringing, try to critique your performance.
How did you do? Does your recording sound similar to the original audio?
Listen for things like:
Write down whichever errors or mistakes stand out to you most, and then move on to the next step.
Step 5: Send the Recording to a Native Speaker
Pat yourself on the back. You've just completed your first performance of a target language text, for your own, personal, audience of one! It was tough, but you got through it.
However, it's not over yet.
There's one more audience you need to perform for—an audience of people who can give you exactly the feedback you'll need to eventually sound like a native speaker.
They are of course...native speakers!
When it comes to language, native speakers are perfect critics. They can identify foreign-sounding pronunciation, intonation, rhythm, or speed instantly, and with pinpoint accuracy. And that's why working with a native speaker is the key, final point of this accent-improvement process.
So, find a native, and send him or her your audio file. It can be the same one that you critiqued in the last step, or a new, improved version with less mistakes.
Then, simply ask them how you did. You can request specific feedback on the same error categories as the previous step, but it likely won't be necessary; most natives identify these types of mistakes automatically.
When they give you your feedback, write it down, and review it. If you're ready for the next challenge, you can repeat Steps 4 and 5, continually recording and analyzing your performance of your text until you can perform it at a near-native level.
Time to Start Your Accent Training
So, there you have it. You’ve learned everything necessary to begin using my Listening and Reading method to start improving your accent right away.
Also, if you want to get your hands on many great texts to improve your reading skills, then I recommend LingQ (affiliate), as it has been a great asset for me when I was learning Chinese.
In this three-part series, we’ve covered:
- Learning sounds using a natural, top-down approach
- Using text and audio together to practice a native-like accent
- Analyzing audio for pronunciation and intonation patterns
- Practicing what you’ve learned, and getting accurate feedback.
Through all this, I hope that I’ve shown you that there are real, concrete steps that anyone can take to bring their accent to the next level.
All you need to do is take action on what you’ve learned here!