I’m going to be upfront with you: I don’t think reducing your accent is as important as mastering grammar or expanding your vocabulary. Perhaps you disagree.
I feel this way for a pretty simple reason: reducing your accent takes as much time and effort as learning vocabulary and grammar does, if not more, but it doesn’t bring you as much value. Developing an excellent accent won’t enable you to communicate more fluently or to discuss a wider range of topics… it just makes you sound less foreign.
In other words: do you care about speaking a language well, or do you care more about developing an accent that might make it sound like you speak the language well?
Why is accent important?
As a teacher, I can tell you that my opinion on accent is not shared by most learners. In fact, a good chunk of my students list accent reduction as one of their top priorities. Many believe that “native-like” pronunciation is essential for succeeding in an environment that consists mostly of native speakers.
As someone who has worked with foreigners, however, I can tell you that this simply isn’t true.
I do think that pronunciation is important in two particular ways:
- When meeting someone for the first time, having a good accent will make people think that you speak the language well. (The longer you interact with them, the better they’ll understand your real level, regardless of how good your accent is or isn’t.)
- It is important to pronounce the words properly, by which I mean stressing the correct parts of words and understanding the basics of intonation. However, it’s absolutely unnecessary to perfectly imitate the accent of native speakers. A university professor I know once said that there is nothing more suspicious than a foreigner who speaks your language the way you do, and I think she was right.
The bottom line is that if your accent is really bad, people may struggle to understand you. The good news is that it doesn’t take a ton of effort to achieve an easily-understandable accent. Anyone can do that. The bad news is that it takes a massive amount of effort to go from having an easily-understandable accent to having a native-like accent.
To put it simply, I don’t think most people stand to benefit much from improving their accent past this “easily understandable (but obviously foreign)” level.
Why is accent not important?
First of all, because it’s nearly impossible to perfect. If you took up a foreign language after the age of 10, your chances of eliminating all traces of your native language’s accent are very low. Mastering a language takes a lot of time and effort, and a big part of succeeding or failing to learn a language comes down to how you choose to spend that time and effort.
Countless grammar rules must be known and used flawlessly, otherwise you can’t make yourself understood. The same goes for vocabulary: you can’t communicate without words. These things directly contribute to your ability to perform in your target language. As such, I think it’s wasteful to spend time prettying up your accent when you could instead spend it mastering things that will actually contribute to your ability to perform in another language.
In other words, whether accent is or isn’t important comes down to an opportunity cost: all of the time you spend learning about articulatory phonetics is time you can’t spend actually using/practicing your target language. Again, you must decide whether you care more about speaking French (etc) or sounding like you’re French.
If you still think you want to improve your accent, here’s a nice overview of some of the things you'd need to learn about to do so as an adult. Be warned, it’s complex. You basically need to reverse engineer your speech organ. From there, you can start working through these e-lectures on articulatory phonetics.
My personal experience
I have been learning English since 2005, when I was in first grade. Seven years later, having become fluent enough to speak without many mistakes, I started working on pronunciation. Being exposed to predominantly American media, I put effort into developing an American accent. It wasn’t until 2017, after five further years of study, that I would visit the US for the first time.
Now, in 2022, I can say that I sound virtually indistinguishable from a native speaker… to people who aren’t native English speakers. Among those mistaking me for an American were Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians, and even the British (if that one barista in a loud Starbucks counts.) But not a single American or Canadian, whose accents I’ve spent a significant portion of my life trying to imitate. It only takes thirty seconds or so before they say something like: “Wait, hold on… You’re not from here, are you?”.
A decade of my life in a single phrase. Depressing, isn’t it?
Well, not really. Not to me, at least.
- First of all, I spent all those years doing something I enjoyed, and time enjoyed is not time wasted.
- Secondly, working on my accent vastly improved my knowledge of theoretical phonetics, which was a great help in my studies at a linguistic university.
- Thirdly, I have never lived in the US for more than a month: I spend about 80% of my daily life speaking my native language. Given that I’m not immersed in English (let alone American English), it’s no wonder that my accent is perfect. Perhaps relocating to a native environment for a prolonged period of time would significantly reduce (if not eliminate) the last vestiges of my European accent. Who knows?..
If you do want to improve your accent:
If you still want to make your target language a little less “target” and a little more “language,” here is some advice. It’s a mix of personal experience, years spent teaching, theoretical knowledge, and common sense.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Listen a ton
My first piece of advice is simple — listen. As much as possible, as often as possible, and starting from as early as possible.
However, pick what you want to listen to wisely.
If you want to start working on an accent of a particular area, then you should listen to as much of that accent as possible. If you want to speak German with an Austrian accent, reduce your exposure to German spoken by speakers from places other than Austria. Massive amounts of time spent listening helps you not only to perceive speech in your target language better, it also prepares you for what you should sound like speaking that language. Basically, it’s good preparation for speaking.
Fake it till you make it
My second recommendation is to imitate native speakers. We’ve actually got an entire post on this topic: how to improve your pronunciation in any language.
After listening to a significant amount of your target language, try to imitate some patterns you notice amongst native speakers. For example, after learning that all speakers of American English pronounce their Rs in a distinct fashion, I started doing the same. Of course, in some cases, my pronunciation was (and still is) pretty far from a native speaker – articulatory phonetics is complicated – but my accent is nevertheless MUCH better than that of most of my fellow Eastern European countrymen.
To be brief: fake it till you make it. A little awareness goes a long way.
Pay attention to spelling
My third piece of advice is somewhat related to the second one: you should pay extra attention to the spelling of your target language. Of course, for some languages, especially in those from Europe, writing traditions have little to do with pronunciation. However, the words are nevertheless spelled a certain way for a reason, so keeping in mind how you write something can help you understand the patterns some people subconsciously stick to when they speak.
Dance like nobody’s watching... because nobody’s watching.
The pronunciation patterns you choose to master don’t necessarily have to come from native speakers. Repeating some phrases after your favorite movie characters or foreign news anchors can and should be done in solitude, in the comfort of your home. One phrase after another.
Eventually you’ll discover that many words/phrases actually share the same intonation pattern. Most languages utilize a few main patterns. You might even find that some of the patterns of your target language are actually the same (or perhaps only a little different) than the ones used in your native language.
As I’ve stated in one of my previous articles, why would you ever learn a language if you are not going to actually use it? The same goes with your accent – however, in this case, things are a bit more complicated.
If you can't hear your target accent as often as you might want to, you’ll inevitably start to lose it. This goes not only for your target language, but also for your native one. For example, my dad sounds nothing like people from his hometown. It takes them five seconds to realize he’s not from there because he left it 30 years ago. I moved away from my hometown six years ago, and much of my original accent has disappeared, too.
Basically: hearing the language you’re learning is important for developing your accent. Try to find someone who speaks as you hope to, listen to a lot, and over time you might subconsciously assume some of their habits.
I speak an East Slavic language whose native speakers are notorious all over the world for not smiling. My native culture frowns upon smiling as well, and each time I smile when I talk to a barista or a cabbie, I get a questioning look in response. After getting a degree in linguistics, I’ve discovered that the standard articulation habits of my mother tongue do not include any movements similar to those involved with smiling. As such, it’s slightly physically uncomfortable to do so. (At least as opposed to German and English, the languages I studied.)
After that discovery, I started paying attention to the mouths and facial expressions of English and German speakers. I quickly learned that they stretch their mouths in a way that slightly resembles smiling. Some sounds instantly got simpler to pronounce when I began doing the same, and many words suddenly started sounding differently… to me, at least.
My recommendation is to pay attention to the way that native speakers articulate when speaking. You should then try to place your lips, tongue, teeth, and even throat the same way. If that's a totally new idea for you, learn about places of articulation, manners of articulation, and the concept of voicing.
Of course, there is a lot more to accent reduction than that. It is a lengthy process that requires a lot of effort, and, as stated in the introduction, might be completely unnecessary for many learners.
Have a nice day, and bye for now!
Want to get more out of your practice?:
- 3 Scientifically-Proven Ways to Improve How You Learn
- Pronunciation Tutors and Becoming Antifragile: What to Avoid for Success
- Advantages of Deliberate Practice over Random Practice