Learning a foreign language is always a bit of a challenge – a fun and fulfilling one, but a challenge nonetheless. And correct pronunciation tends to be one of the more challenging areas for many learners.
No matter what language you are learning, you are bound to come across sounds that are somewhat (sometimes a lot!) different from your native language.
For instance, speakers of English often struggle with the Russian rolling ‘r’, while Russians have difficulty pronouncing ‘ð’ and ‘θ’.
Similarly, English native speakers are often challenged by Chinese tones whilst Chinese native speakers can struggle with English consonant clusters or vowel sounds.
Pronunciation, however, is not only about sounds. It includes stress, tones, rhythm, and intonation. Two languages can have relatively similar sounds but very different intonation patterns, and tonal languages like Chinese are notorious among learners.
Many learners, especially adults, are embarrassed by mispronouncing things and having a strong accent. But what is an accent, really, and is having one really that bad?
In this article, we are going to take a detailed look at what an accent is, whether to get rid of it, and the most effective ways to modify it.
What is an Accent?
According to Oxford Languages, an accent is ‘a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class’. Basically, there are two types of accents.
One is the so-called ‘foreign’ accent. It appears when you speak a foreign language using some of the pronunciation rules and sounds of your native one. Most language learners speak their target language with an accent. This is not inherently bad but a strong foreign accent can make one’s speech hard to understand.
The other type of accent is the one people have when speaking their native language. Any language can consist of a multitude of different accents and dialects. People living in different parts of the UK or the USA, for example, speak English differently, and sometimes you can tell where the person is from just by the way they speak.
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Should I Get Rid of My Foreign Accent?
The answer to this question depends mainly on two factors: what you mean by accent and how strong your accent is.
As discussed in the previous section, an accent can be just understood as the manner in which you speak. In this sense, it is impossible to get rid of one’s accent.
There’s No such Thing As No Accent
Whether it’s our native or foreign language, we speak it in some manner – with some type of accent, often heavily influenced by where we live, but also our educational, social, and other backgrounds. You can change the way you speak if you want to (more on that later), but you can’t speak without any kind of accent.
The accent you might want to get rid of is the foreign accent that occurs when you are learning a foreign language. Especially at the beginning, it may be hard to pronounce unfamiliar sounds and use foreign intonation patterns correctly, so learners replace them with familiar sounds and patterns from their native language.
Never Be Ashamed Of Your Foreign Accent
A foreign accent is nothing to be ashamed of – it is natural for language learners to have one. However, a strong foreign accent can lead to misunderstanding: you won’t be able to reach your communications goals, have less fun talking to people, or sometimes even feel a bit embarrassed.
You don’t need to get rid of your foreign accent entirely. It takes a lot of time and dedication and may take your attention away from other essential language skills. It’s no use learning to pronounce a few words perfectly if all you can say is just a few words.
Improving Pronunciation is More Important Than Losing Your Accent
You should definitely strive to improve your pronunciation. That should perhaps be your focus rather than aiming to completely get rid of your foreign accent.
The better you speak your target language, the easier it is for people to understand you and for you to understand them. It will improve your sense of achievement and enable you to reach your goals in a variety of communicative situations. Basically, you’ll have a lot more fun when speaking your target language.
How Can I Improve My Accent in a Foreign Language?
Whilst losing your foreign accent completely is very challenging, you can take steps to improve it.
Even if you are not aiming for ‘perfect’ pronunciation (what is ‘perfect’, anyway?) and not trying to getting rid of your accent completely, it is very important to work on your pronunciation as well as other language skills.
Improving your pronunciation skills requires extensive exercise with both your ears and your mouth. Here are a few tips on how to do it more effectively.
Start With the Basics of Your Target Language
Look at the sounds of your target language and study them carefully: how are they different from your native language? What are the tricks to pronouncing them?
Nowadays you can find a lot of free videos on YouTube of native speakers explaining how to pronounce the sounds of their language – check them out before you practice pronouncing the sounds yourself.
Listen Very Carefully
To improve your accent it is important to hear (or more importantly, listen to) a lot of good examples of your target language. Doing so will give you a familiarity with the language and its sounds, rhythm, and intonation patterns.
Depending on your level, you can start with material for learners, such as language learning podcasts. You could then move on to unadapted materials, for instance, listening to the news in your target language.
Repeat What You Hear
Listening alone is, of course, not enough to improve your pronunciation. It may sound primitive, but you need to speak to improve your speaking skills. Repeat after your teacher, after the language learning podcast, or after the characters of your favourite TV show.
It’s great if you have someone to check your pronunciation, like an experienced teacher or a native speaker. But even if you are practicing by yourself, you can try to sound as close to the original as possible. A great technique to achieve this is called ‘shadowing’.
Shadowing a foreign language involves walking around briskly (preferably outdoors) whilst listening to a recording of a native-speaker dialogue and repeating in a loud, clear voice, exactly what you hear.
Brisk walking is advised as this boosts oxygenation and alertness of the brain. This subsequently maximises the overall learning process.
This may be especially useful if you are learning a language by yourself or want to have some independent practice in addition to classes with a teacher.
Recording yourself will allow you to hear your voice ‘from the outside’. You will have a better understanding of what you are doing right or wrong.
Exercise Your Mouth
When learning a new language, it’s important to train your mouth to move and form speech in a different way. Simply training your mouth muscles to produce the sounds of your target language will really help to improve your accent and pronunciation skills.
Let’s face it, if you’ve spent a lifetime speaking another language your mouth is accustomed to moving in a very specific way.
Exercising the muscles that control your jaw, tongue and lips is a great way to retrain the brain. You can do this by repeating the correct pronunciation of sounds or words from your target language. Doing so will create new muscle memory for the mouth and all its components.
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Practice Makes Perfect
Regular practice is essential in language learning. It allows you to store new knowledge in the long-term memory and truly consolidate your growing skills.
Speak your target language a little bit every day. Don’t worry if one day it’s a meaningful conversation with a native speaker, and another just wishing a good morning to your cat.
Speaking practice can be varied, but if it’s regular, you will make progress much faster.
How Long Does it Take to Get Rid of a Foreign Accent?
This question is very similar to ‘How long does it take to learn a language?’ in the sense that it has no definite answer. How long it takes to improve one’s accent depends on a lot of factors, such as the learner’s:
• General linguistic aptitude
• How long and how often they practice the language
• Amount of attention they pay to pronunciation
• The level they want to achieve
• How close their native and target languages are
This is all very individual, and it is hard to say whether this or that person can get rid of their foreign accent.
Take English, for instance. You have probably met people who still speak English with an accent despite having spoken it for years. Their accent is not as strong as to prevent understanding but can be very distinct.
You have probably also met people without even knowing that English is not their first language, as they have no distinct foreign accent.
With regular practice, you can improve your pronunciation and achieve better clarity within just a few weeks. However, getting rid of your foreign accent completely may take quite a while and a lot of hard work.
Again, you need to ask yourself if it is worth really worth it? Pronunciation and making yourself understood is perhaps an easier and more sensible goal.
At What Age is an Accent Permanent?
Speaking philosophically, nothing is permanent in our life. It may sound a bit too pompous, but in a way, it is true when it comes to a person’s accent: there is no age at which you can’t change anything about it.
However, as we get older, it gets increasingly difficult. The older the language learner is the more motivation, effort, and time it will require for them to change their accent. Moreover, after a certain age, it becomes practically impossible to drastically change one’s accent.
The exact age at which you are ‘doomed’ to keep your accent is hard to pinpoint. Some experts say, it is as early as 12-14. People who immigrate at that age seldom lose their foreign accents. Others claim you won’t be able to significantly change your accent after you hit your 20s. If you ask individual learners about their experiences, their answers will vary a lot.
Where’s the truth? It may be hard to determine the exact age, but it is true that the older we get the more likely we are to speak a foreign language with some form of accent.
Unless you are going to be a spy, a bit of a foreign accent should not be a problem – some people even find it charming.
However, if accent matters to you a lot, start learning a language as early as you can and go heavy on pronunciation practice.
Can You Totally Change Your Accent?
If you have read the previous sections, you can probably guess what the answer to this question is. It takes a lot of patience, effort, and regular practice. It may also take you quite a while, but the good news is that changing your accent is possible.
Some people go as far as to deliberately change the accent they speak their native language with. In some context, certain accents may be perceived as more prestigious and desirable.
For example, a politician from a rural area may decide to adopt a dialect or accent spoken in the capital of the country. That said, such people often revert to their ‘default’ native accent in informal situations or when they are expressing intense emotions.
You can change your accent in a foreign language as well. We have discussed above that you can indeed get rid of your foreign accent.
However, if you have learned one variant of a language, say, Brazilian Portuguese, you can (with time and effort) change your accent to European Portuguese.
The big question is whether it is really necessary. Changing your accent can be rather hard, and without sufficient motivation and a concrete goal in mind it becomes even harder. After all, the main goal of most communication is to get your message across. This can usually be achieved without totally changing your accent.
Does Learning a Language Change Your Accent?
No matter how many foreign languages you learn, it is unlikely to affect your native language.
For instance, if your native language is English, you can learn Chinese, Russian, Spanish, or any number of other languages but you won’t start speaking English with a Chinese, Russian, or any other accent.
The opposite is far more likely – you will speak Chinese, Russian, or Spanish with an English accent.
Our native language is so deeply ingrained in our memory and our subconscious, it is hard to drastically change it. You can deliberately learn a different accent, but you will likely go back to your ‘original’ accent if you don’t pay careful attention to your speech.
There may be some interference between the foreign languages you speak. For instance, if you learn French very well and start learning Spanish, you may speak Spanish with a slight French accent.
While it may be hard to deliberately change your native or foreign accent, it may gradually change through exposure. If you move from one region or a country to another, over time, you may adopt the accent common in that area.
Similarly, you can learn one variant of a foreign language (say, Argentinian Spanish), but if you are more exposed to another (for example, European Spanish), your own pronunciation may gradually change.
Changing your accent requires a lot of time and effort and sufficient motivation. However, getting rid of your accent completely may not be necessary. If you can communicate clearly and your pronunciation doesn’t result in misunderstanding, it may be quite enough. Besides, your foreign accent can even be a part of your identity and charm.
It is up to you to decide whether you want to do anything about your accent. If you want to improve your pronunciation, you can use the tips suggested in this article to do it more effectively.