The first goal to focus on when learning any new language should be to understand and be understood in your target language. Everything else is second-place. Once you’ve reached that level and feel comfortable in your new skills, however, it can be a good idea to take a step back and try to analyse how you actually sound when speaking the language.
This is, of course, an issue for the more advanced students – nobody should be focusing on improving their accent when their attention should be on how to formulate that difficult past or conjugate properly. That said, it has been shown that non-native speakers with heavy accents can even be perceived as less credible and believable because of the way the way they speak – so putting a bit of emphasis on improving your accent can be a good investment.
Since accent training is a lengthy process and requires time and practice, we’ve also split this advice article into two parts. This part focuses more on the problem of heavy accents and gives an introduction to solving the problem, the second part provides more practical tips. You can read the second part here.
It All Comes Down to the Details – Pronunciation
Spoken language in its basest form is simply a set of sounds with an agreed-upon meaning in a certain cultural context. So, the question of starting to sound more like a native really simply boils down to mimicking the “sounds”.
Unfortunately, this is a harder task than I just made it seem. Since you will most likely have been brought up in a different cultural context with a different sounding language, your natural way of speaking would simply force a new language to fit around your existing sounds. And changing this is such a difficult problem that even very experienced language learners struggle with it.
The trick, then, would seem to be to learn these new sounds, or learn to adjust the sounds you know to the new language. In essence – you need to focus on shifting your pronunciation of single syllables and words to be as similar as possible to that of native speakers, so that, in the longer run, the words combine to produce speech similar to that of the natives.
But how exactly would be the best to achieve that?
Listening to the Native Sounds
A good start to improving your accent is to get your ear used to the way natives who speak your target language sound like. This is an easier task if you’re living in the country where your target language is widely spoken – you can simply go out and eavesdrop on people! Or make native friends if that seems less creepy (using language exchange Meetup groups can be a great idea).
If you’re not as lucky as to have native speakers at hand, there’s luckily always the TV. These days, you can also always use the internet to find a suitable source of native-language media. For Spanish, French, Arabic, Hungarian, and German, you can also check out our blog posts covering the best online resources for those languages – you might find some good sources for native-spoken language there.
Tune in to your favourite show and be sure to pay attention to how people sound. Make a note of any sounds that seem unfamiliar or which you think will be the most difficult for you to mimic.
You might come across sounds that don’t exist in your language (or even discover the horror of tonal languages, such as Thai or Mandarin). But don’t get scared off by this. Instead, give yourself as much exposition to your target language as possible to get your ear trained to distinguishing the new sounds.
Make sure to dedicate some time to getting used to the way your target language sounds. When you start feeling comfortable about being able to distinguish even the finer differences in emphasis and inflection, go ahead to the second part of this article.