Mt. Native Accent

Written by Yuri Karabatov. Follow me on Twitter.

Most people starting on a new language want to reach conversational fluency. Well, it’s obvious. A little bit less of them want to have a polished near-native accent as well.

That’s a great goal, but few of them see how hard a road awaits ahead. Attaining near-native accent is far from a walk in the park; it’s hard work, totaling to hundreds of hours of study time.

Aspiring foreign language speakers, nevertheless, believe that a short audio-course will leave them chatting perfect [insert language here] in no time. Surprisingly, they are more or less right.

Let’s have a more detailed look on native accent and decide for ourselves if we need it all that much.

What is accent?

First of all, we should define what exactly we are talking about, when we are talking about accent.

Accent is a rather broad term, so for the sake of clarity in this post by accent I will mean a distinctive manner of pronunciation, inherent to the native speakers of a particular language.

Why imitation is wrong

Everyone studying a foreign language imitates native speakers; it’s perfectly normal, even obligatory. But there are a select few who use imitation only as a secondary means of studying pronunciation.

Don’t get me wrong: solid work imitating native speakers results in great accent. Problem is, it’s not exactly native. And it’s almost impossible to improve because of all the practice put in.

Do not let imitation become the source of your pronunciation knowledge, instead make it the product of your knowledge of pronunciation.

A small example. You do not learn to swim by imitating others who can swim. No: you first learn how to move your legs, then how to rotate your hands and how to breathe. Only after that, by combining all these simple separate movements into a single complex movement, you start swimming.

It’s the same here: you don’t learn correct pronunciation by imitating complex movements of live speech, but start with basic movements instead. Those basic movements are separate sounds, and the system of separate sounds is phonetics of a particular language.

Observe the smallest details

Notice that every decent textbook has a phonetics section in the beginning, but it’s usually skipped, because those “a as in father” and “b as in beer” fail to get the sound right anyway, so why bother? It’s still imitation.

I’ll add one little detail: notice that you can tell different languages — or even different accents of one language — by a single sound. “O” in Britain, the US, Spain, Russia and Japan will sound different. Just one sound can help pinpoint the place where the person is from! Isn’t that great?

How is that possible? The reason is that in different languages the speech organs produce the sound “o” in different position: in Russian, for example, the lips are more rounded and more protruded, than in English, in other languages there are various small details as well.

What I’m coming at is that only by imitation (i.e. repeating after native speakers) you won’t catch all those itsy-bitsy small details of each sound, which together make up the native accent of a particular language. You can get all the details only if you are drilling into each and every sound, and each movement of the speech apparatus.

For that you have to get a bit technical, but I will get into detail in one of the next posts where I will be explaining the sound system of Japanese and how to attain near-native Japanese accent from the very beginning.

What if I start with pronunciation?

I believe that every serious language student should put near-perfect pronunciation on the top of the list, and among the very first things to learn when starting on a new language.

Early start on correct native-like pronunciation will instantly put you in the right direction for attaining a near-native accent in the language of your choice.

Below are some other benefits from starting on pronunciation early.

1. Pronunciation is integral

Pronunciation, as well as vocabulary and grammatical patterns, makes an integral part of any language. If you ignore it, you effectively throw out a large chunk of the language. Be careful: some of this chunk is unrecoverable at later stages.

Some people mistakingly believe that if they maintain their own accent, it helps them sound “authentic”. Well, of course it’s their choice, as long as it doesn’t impede communication, but I would still recommend dropping any accent and start sounding as native-like as possible.

Accent may be good for English with its multitude of speakers in a variety of countries, but for other more geographically defined languages wrong accent may put you in an unfavorable position. For example, the French don’t like it when someone speaks bad French, they want an accent as close to theirs as possible.

On the whole, building a personal wall in order to stay “authentic” is like… counter-productive? Believe me, accent is the least detail of your authenticity. Your appearance and actions matter much more.

2. Explains other aspects

One of the benefits of correct pronunciation is that you’ll understand some grammatical rules much easier than those with broken pronunciation.

For example, “h” in Japanese is frequently pronounced like “f”. If you articulate correctly, you’ll quickly understand that in front of “u”, when you protrude lips, the sound [h] moves forward from the back of the mouth and becomes [f]. You won’t even have to remember the rule: [h] will become [f] all by itself if you articulate the sounds correctly.

3. Better start early than late

Remember that language in its basic form is the movement of muscles: tongue, lips, etc. Muscles have memory which becomes more and more ingrained the more you use them.

If you start with bad incorrect pronunciation and use it for a year or two, it will become ingrained in your speech organs, and you’ll have a hard time getting rid of this bad accent.

So it’s much easier and more effective in the long run to start the habit of correct pronunciation from the very beginning of your language studies.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know this rule when I was taught English at school. When I entered the university, my phonetics teacher was very angry at my school teachers for not correcting my pronunciation. It really was awful, believe me. I had ten years of incorrect pronunciation behind my back, and it took me a whole year of hard work to start speaking more or less correctly. Sadly, leftovers are still there, and I think I’ll never get rid of them.

Don’t repeat my mistakes: make native-like pronunciation your second nature from the very beginning of your language studies.

4. Study several languages at once

Surprisingly, if you explore the sound systems of several European languages, like German, French and English, you’ll notice that they are quite different. If you feel adventurous, it’s possible to try studying two or more languages at once.

There are live examples out there! The key is to distinguish pronunciation, and read everything aloud as you study. Your brain will understand which words belong to which language depending on the sound system.

Start early and sound native

I hope I’ve made my beliefs quite clear.

Attaining near-native accent is possible. Of course, it involves much work on pronunciation and your target language sound system.

Imitating native speakers is a great way to improve, but you won’t get all the small details by imitation only, you have to drill down into the sound system yourself.

The earlier you start on correct pronunciation, the faster you’ll eventually attain a great near-native accent.

Remember, that speaking a language is as simple as training a muscle, if we talk only about phonetics. The earlier you start training correct movement, the faster you’ll reach perfection. Cheers to your success!

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