In this post, I will discuss one of the most misunderstood parts of language learning: accent and what you can do to improve it.
I won't go into much detail about how to improve your pronunciation – plenty of books deal with that in exhaustive detail! Instead, we'll get straight to what you want to know: how to improve your accent.
Let's start with some perspective.
By the way, if you want to sound natural in your target language thanks to a fun and effective method that teaches you through stories, not rules, check out my StoryLearning® courses and claim your free 7-day trial.
Get Maximum Exposure To A Native Language
An eight-year-old Japanese girl called Natsuko, who recently moved to the UK, once came to take guitar lessons with me. She spoke no English whatsoever.
But, as you would expect from a kid of that age, after one year of living in North London and attending school, she learned how to pronounce English words with a nice rounded British accent! It was an amazing transformation to watch.
Knowing no English words at the beginning, she hardly spoke. If you can't speak, there's nothing to do but to listen.
How much time do you imagine she would have spent listening to native English speakers during that year at school? Assuming six-hour school days, some after-school activities and six weeks of school holidays, I estimate about 1,500 hours.
As a language learner, are you as effective as an eight-year-old child in picking up an accent? Sorry to say, but it's unlikely.
Long-term studies of immigrants to North America have shown that accent is the one element of language that is not only learnt more effectively by children but is usually not learnt successfully by adults.
Now, if it took Natsuko 1,500 hours of intense listening at school, supported by teachers and classmates who would mediate their speech to help her improve her accent. How many hours would you need?
Let's be generous and go for 2,000 hours, give or take.
Where Am I At?
How many hours have you actually spent, in practice, listening actively to the language you're learning? (Authentic language spoken by native speakers in context – not audio CDs titled “How to Improve Accent” or “How to Improve my Pronunciation”!)
Whatever the gap in hours is, this is what you need to work on.
It took Natsuko one year. How long would it take you to get 2,000 hours of listening in?
- 15 mins per day: 21.9 years
- 30 mins per day: 10.95 years
- 45 mins per day: 7.3 years
- 60 mins per day: 5.48 years
- 90 mins (the length of a movie) per day: 3.65 years
Better get started!
Now, none of this is to say that you need 2,000 hours of listening to native speakers in order to be understood. Nor is it to say that you need to have a natural accent.
However, if you want to improve your accent or have ambitions in that direction, you need to start by knowing what you're aiming for. That means a lot of listening.
How Can I Improve My Accent?
Luckily, you can slash this figure of 2,000 hours by bringing to the table something that an eight-year-old child probably can't: study skills.
With accent, it all starts with the ability to observe. You must develop the habit of seeing the gap between where you are and where you want to be, or there needs to be a foundation to build on.
There are various approaches that language learners can take to improve word stress, pronunciation and accent. These are just some excellent examples.
Practise Active Listening
You don't necessarily need any special techniques. Active listening on its own is powerful and effective.
Listen closely to the correct pronunciation of interesting words and phrases. Study the word stress within sentences.
Repeat them back to yourself out loud or in your mind. Pay attention to how they are pronounced differently and notice the sound and rhythm of the words.
Another tip for language learners is to record yourself speaking and listening back to how you’re speaking English. You will be surprised at the difference between how you think you sound and how you actually sound.
You should also record a native English speaker saying the exact same words and notice the differences. You'll need a friend or exchange partner for this!
See if you can associate rhythms or melodies to phrases as you learn them. Try an interesting or challenging expression – listen to it repeatedly and see if any melodies or rhythms emerge.
Visit Online Dictionaries
You can use online dictionaries to learn more about different words and phrases. But you can also find out how they are pronounced.
Many dictionary websites will feature a sound icon next to the word you’re searching for. It will provide an example of how it’s pronounced and break down the syllables so you can learn how to say it correctly.
Access The International Phonetic Alphabet
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a system of symbols representing human native language sounds. It is used by linguists, language teachers, and others who need to represent speech sounds accurately.
The IPA is not a language itself; it has no grammar or vocabulary. It is simply a tool for representing the sounds of speech.
The IPA is helpful as there are many ways to pronounce the same sound in different languages. For example, the letters ‘ough’ can be said differently in the English words though and thought.
That’s what makes the IPA a valuable tool for anyone who wants to learn how to pronounce specific words accurately.
Use Your Other Senses
An excellent way to improve your English pronunciation is to involve other senses as part of your learning. For example, you can clap out the syllables while sounding them out.
If you’re in a public place or around other language learners, you can try humming or nodding your head to keep the noise levels down. When you’re alone, you could even sing out some of the phrases you’re trying to perfect.
Listen To Music
Learning songs can also help with your English pronunciation. Singers have to articulate individual sounds (phonemes) very clearly to make themselves understood.
The effort involved in memorising lyrics in a foreign language and the mental processing involved in associating words with melodies means that you will pay very close attention to the sounds throughout the song. During the process, your pronunciation will improve quickly.
You'll also develop a new vocabulary at the same time. If there's karaoke culture in your target language, then you've got a great incentive (and potentially a lot of embarrassing nights ahead of you)!
Study Other Entertainment Sources
If you’re not a music lover, there are plenty of other entertaining resources you can utilise. There are radio programmes, tv shows, and movies.
Chasing your hours will also help you find portable sources while commuting or exercising. There should be podcasts produced in the target language (not language learning podcasts) and audiobooks.
You can store them on your phone and fire them up whenever you’re on the move.
Practise With Native Speakers
The best feedback you will get on your accent is from other native speakers. You can get practice by simply ordering a cup of coffee or engaging in conversation with someone over the phone.
The more meaningful the discussion, the better the opportunity for you to practice your accent. It will also give you a chance further to study language usage, vocal patterns and other nuances.
How To Develop An Accent
What if you’re a native English speaker who wants to develop a French accent? Perhaps you want to adopt an accent from another English-speaking country like the USA or Australia.
There are many ways to achieve this goal. Try some of these tips.
Choose Someone To Imitate
You can pick a public figure or someone close to you that won’t mind you imitating their accent. Try to record them speaking as much as possible so you can listen back and learn how to enunciate the words.
It’s a good idea to choose someone with a similar personality to you. If you’re shy and introverted, you don’t want to pick a celebrity known for their over-the-top nature.
Watch The Speaker Talk
Listening to the speaker is great, but you also want to study how they talk. You want to specifically analyse how their mouth forms sound.
Copy The Mouth Movements
Try to mimic these mouth movements in front of a mirror as you study them. You’ll want to focus your efforts on tongue placement and how much you’re using your jaw.
When you’re trying to develop an accent, you are retraining many parts of your mouth. It takes a lot of time to master and many hours of repeating the same words over and over again.
Focus On A Region
When you’ve mastered the different sounds of a foreign accent, you can take your skills to the next level by focusing your efforts on a specific region within the country.
For example, if you want to develop an American accent, you should choose a state within the country. Someone from Texas sounds very different to a person that comes from New York.
Understanding these intricacies can go a long way in perfecting the accent you’re trying to learn.
Learn The Vocabulary
In addition to knowing the region of a country, you should also study the different words and phrases native to that location. It goes beyond the currency they use and how the temperature is measured.
While you’re watching TV shows or movies from the country of origin, listen out for how everyday items are described.
For example, in Australia, peppers are called capsicums. Meanwhile, in the USA, an apartment is referred to as a flat.
Knowing and incorporating these differences into your learning can help you further develop your accent.
Learn How To Improve Your Accent
As you can see, there are many strategies you can try to improve your accent. The most important thing is to be patient and persistent.
It might take a lot of time and effort, but it is achievable if you stick with it.
Don't be afraid to make mistakes. The important thing is to keep practising and not give up.
You also need to be patient. It takes time to learn a new accent, so don't expect to sound like a native speaker overnight.
Most importantly, have fun! Learning how to improve your accent should be satisfying.
If you enjoy the experience, you will likely stick with it.
If you want to do lots of listening as you learn through stories, not rules, check out my StoryLearning® courses, where you'll also get pronunciation lessons from a native speaker!