Can I Sound Like a Native Speaker?
When learning a language there will come a point when you can string sentences together effortlessly, with hardly any noticeable grammar mistakes. The vast vocabulary you have acquired over time comes in handy each day, potentially even distinguishing you as a native speaker when writing. But one thing always seems to give you away — your accent.
I’ll take myself as an example. I grew up in Bavaria to English parents, with English as my first language and learning German along the way. I speak both English and German fluently and can switch between the two seamlessly. I only have a very slight accent when speaking German since I luckily started learning the language at a young age. On numerous occasions I came into situations where people wouldn’t pick up on any accent at first but as soon as I mentioned where I am originally from they would say, “Oh ja, I can hear your English accent now!” The same thing happened when I moved to Berlin and people kept commenting on “how Bavarian” I sound — I simply can’t win.
For the rest of the conversation I would feel self-conscious about having blown my (non-existent) cover, or just annoyed that the person is listening to my accent rather than what I was talking about. If you can relate to this in any way, and I’m sure there are a few of you out there, then rest assured there are countless ways to sound more like a native speaker that you can try out from home.
What can I do to improve my accent?
Let’s get one thing straight, you cannot (always) lose your accent completely. Many factors determine how your accent will turn out in the end — how long you’ve been learning the language, the level of immersion, how young or old you were when you started learning,… Improving your accent takes a lot of work, so don’t expect to be able to change it overnight.
One thing you can start with is ‘choosing’ an accent you would like to work towards and go from there. If you moved to Vienna for work, you may want to have more of a Viennese lilt, or if you live in Zurich you might want to get the hang of Swiss sounds. You may never fully attain that accent’s nuances (some even go to speech therapists for this) but you can get very close!
Listen to native speakers
This might seem like an obvious first step but it is important to appreciate the value in simply listening. By listening to and speaking with native speakers of the language you are learning, you will be subjected to a constant stream of helpful information. If there are words you find tricky to pronounce, simply try to imitate a native speaker. Yes, you can fake it till you make it!
You can either do this in person, or (perhaps more appropriate during a pandemic) via video chat. One-on-one video lessons where you can talk to a tutor for any length of time can be incredibly helpful if you’re dedicated. Lessons not only help you keep your fluency but also aid listening comprehension and accent training. Win-win! (You can sign up for a free Live Lesson with Chatterbug below!)
In the time between lessons, another option is to watch movies or video clips. This method is particularly handy because you can play the word or phrase over and over again until you’re confident you have nailed the pronunciation. YouTube is an excellent resource for this with countless helpful videos — but watch out for this incorrect pronunciation tutorial channel!
Learn melody and pitch
Even if you pronounce each word perfectly, the tone in which you say them when putting them into a sentence could sound slightly off to a native speaker. While you speak with native speakers or watch movie scenes, you should pay special attention to the melody and pitch of their speech. In many languages, pitch shifts and emphasis play a large role in the message conveyed by a phrase.
In English, for example, the melody of a rhetorical question doesn’t go up at the end as in regular questions (though you’ve probably noticed that already, haven’t you?) — little details like this help improve your accent to such an extent that it might eventually go undetected. This is heavily dependent on your native language and the language you are learning, of course. Each language has its own unique set of rules in regards to melody and stress. A Mandarin speaker may have a hard time finessing French, and vice versa, a French speaker may encounter a few tonal blunders in Mandarin.
Practice muscle memory
With listening also comes doing, and it goes without saying that repetition really is key. Speaking is a physical activity, something we may not think of immediately in the context of language learning. When you’re practicing new sounds that are unfamiliar to you, take note of what parts of your mouth, tongue and throat move when recreating it. Then, like a physical exercise, practice practice practice until you can perform the movements and create sounds without much effort or conscious thought. It’s even better if you have a mirror to practice in!
A good example is the ‘ch’ sound in German. This is a sound very foreign to English speakers (as foreign as the English ‘th’ is to German speakers). Often German-learners initially struggle to get that fricative hiss at the back of their throat just right.
You may think it’s impossible, but by feeling where your tongue goes, which muscles move and how much air passes through your mouth, you will eventually be able to recreate the sound with ease. Babies and young children can learn any sound just by imitating their caregivers — if they can do it, so can you!
Move away from orthography
Sometimes one of the hurdles keeping you from perfecting your accent is the alphabet itself. By a matter of habit, upon seeing a combination of letters familiar to you, you will inevitably try to pronounce it the way you learned it in your native language. Of course, with time you will learn to distinguish languages and their spelling from each other but if you are still in the early stages of acquisition, it helps to move away from orthography (a fancy word for a language’s conventional spelling system) as much as you can.
A very helpful skill that can help with this is reading the IPA (nope, not the beer), the International Phonetic Alphabet. Luckily for some, the IPA is closely modeled on the Roman alphabet, which comes much closer to matching a sound to a letter, so it is an efficient way to represent the sounds in any given spoken language. Once you are comfortable with IPA, you can use it to take much clearer notes on pronunciation, or to look up pronunciations online. It’s also fun to flex your linguistic skills 😉
Refine, don’t lose
In an ideal world your accent should not matter at all but unfortunately, sometimes it does. You might not be surprised by studies that show even regional accents have an impact on our daily lives. We could delve deeper into the politics of accents but that should be saved for another time. There is an insightful article over at Quartz that goes into this phenomenon if you’re interested.
Don’t let this fact discourage you though, because in an increasingly globalized world accents are becoming more commonplace and accepted. Before you do anything, you should first deduce how others react to your accent. If you find people often ask you to repeat words or sentences, perhaps your accent is impeding your clarity of speech. On another note, if people barely comment on your accent or only ask ‘Where are you from?’ occasionally, your speech is presumably clear enough to understand and your accent is just a bonus.
Remember: your accent adds character to your voice. Rather than trying to get rid of it, try to refine it instead. Refining your accent in terms of clarity, vocabulary, tone and melody should help you on the path to ‘owning’ your accent. It could even become your brand. Accents are like herbs and spices that add depth and character to an otherwise ‘bland’ language.
I hope this gives you some hope and encouragement. Give yourself a pat on the back for all the hard work you’ve already put in, that’s already a huge accomplishment. Now go forth and start sounding more like a local!
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