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Improving Your Accent

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Many learners have difficulty losing their foreign accent when speaking in their target language. They may feel that they will never be understood. After all, it's much better to start early than thinking you can "fix your accent" later. It's much easier to start out making the correct sounds than to try to adjust your mouth and brain after you've learned and been speaking for a while. In normal conversation, you don't have time to think about your accent. It has to come naturally as you express your thoughts. This can only happen if you associate those thoughts and the message they want to convey with the correct sounds. However, even if you have been speaking with a strong English accent for a long time, there are still things you can do to improve it. To do so, you must look at what makes up an accent and improve each part individually.

 PronunciationEdit

Pronunciation refers to the articulation of speech sounds. Learners should be careful not to let the arbitrary conventions of the written language interfere with their understanding of the physical act of pronouncing sounds. 

  • Learn about Phonetics, so you at least have a basic understanding of the features involved in the pronunciation of sounds.
  • Make sure you understand the relationship between the spelling and the sounds it represents in the language you are tackling. Two languages may share the same alphabet, but letters may not represent the same sounds in both. Ex.: the French 'r' does not represent an English 'r' sound; 'u' can represent various vowels depending on the language and the surrounding letters, diacritics can have different effects, etc.
  • Although IPA symbols offer a consistent way to identify sounds within a language, their use tends to be simplified and several features are left out. Typically, predictable variations within a language tend to be omitted (eg. nasalisation of English vowels, such as in 'bank', is not usually indicated), the same symbol can be used to point to sounds that are realized differently across regional variations (ie. English 'r' or 't'), and sounds that differ from one language to another may be represented by the same symbol (ie. the nature of 's' or 't' varies significantly across languages; voiced and voiceless pairs like d/t vary in how much voicing is needed to differenciate them, etc.).

IntonationEdit

Intonation is the melody of the language, such as which parts of the sentence are lower or higher in pitch. 

  • Intonation can be improved by focused listening and then repeating the sounds. See the page on Shadowing.
  • Read Olle Kjellin's ideas about accent addition.

Rhythm/StressEdit

The rhythm of a language relies on where the stress falls in a word or sentence. 

  • Rhythm can also be improved by shadowing.

General Edit

  • There are a number of different types of accent courses out there. Serious language learners should avoid those created for actors, since actors generally only have to work out a short rehearsed text and don't require natural speech. As such, they are often sorely lacking in examples that are suitable for rehearsal by somebody learning the language. Similarly, most language courses will mention the most obvious pronunciation issues faced by students, but generally gloss over solutions or not contain sufficient exercises to work on the problem areas.
  • Courses that are good will be larger courses that are geared specifically towards accent reduction course or a university phonetics course with a large number of audio CDs and exercises. If the course only has 2-3 CDs, it's probably not enough.
  • Find pictures of the tongue positions of consonants you are trying to learn.
  • Record yourself reading texts and get a native speaker to listen to them. Ask them to point out places where you sound unnatural.
  • Watch mouth shapes carefully, and use a mirror for experimenting on your own.
  • Listen, Listen Listen.
  • Don't be afraid to sound silly. You're going to be making sounds you're not used to making, and it's very easy to be self-conscious, especially when you're also worried about looking stupid in front of native speakers.
  • Remember also that it's not always a bad thing thing to have a bit of an accent. Many people find foreign accents "sexy" or "cute". But having a heavy accent can impede communication.
  • Having an accent also tags you as a student of the language, which can be beneficial in some circumstances. (It will probably make native speakers more sympathetic to your cause, and they'll speak more slowly.. If you sound like a native but are a long way from being fluent, they'll probably be more confused and less helpful.)

Specific courses/tools:Edit

Mandarin: wordbook has sample sounds and provides feedback on your pronunciation of them, including your intonation; pitch curves are shown for the tones.

Professor Arguelles: Some thoughts on accent and pronunciation

HTLAL Thread: Memorizing key to native accent?

Video on learning an accent with regards to its components - She breaks down the accent into similar sections as those in this article and explains how to improve each area. Even though her advice is geared to people learning to speak English with a foreign accent, much of it is applicable to speaking a foreign language without an English accent.

Forvo  - hear a word pronounced by native speakers

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