So you’ve been told you’ve got a heavy accent in the language you’re learning? Or do people find it hard to understand you when you speak? Maybe you just want to improve your pronunciation and sound more like a native? Or you want to make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself when you first start speaking? Whatever the reason you’re here, if you want to improve your pronunciation in a foreign language, you’ve come to the right place.
Why do people have heavy accents?
The first thing to understand is why heavy accents exist in the first place. Well, this is where I finally use my “linguist” blog to talk about linguistics! The answer lies in phonetics and phonology.
The first thing that it is important to realise is that every language uses different sounds to produce speech. It sounds obvious, but just let that sink in for a bit. You can’t use only the sounds of your native language and expect to sound good in a different language.
So what causes the heavy accent in second language learners? Essentially, when we are just babies and toddlers, we are a clean slate. This means we have the ability to learn to form any human sound we hear. However, toddlers quickly learn which sounds are necessary for them to speak and which ones are not. And being the efficient little sponges they are, they absorb all the sounds they need for their languages and eliminate any other potential sounds from their bank of sounds. This means that the better we get at making all the sounds of our native languages, the more difficult it is to make sounds pertaining to other languages. This is also why heritage language speakers usually have perfect pronunciation, even if they are not fluent in the language.
If you’re older than a toddler, don’t lose hope! Albeit harder, it is always possible to learn to produce new sounds and combinations of sounds. It just takes a bit of practice. And patience.
So, here’s how to improve your pronunciation in a foreign language:
1. Learn the international Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
If you want to get rid of a heavy accent, or at least improve your pronunciation, you are going to have to understand a bit more about your own language’s sounds (or phonetics). I recommend studying the IPA chart. This chart gives a great summary of where and how speech sounds are produced in the mouth. Look up the specific IPA charts for both your native language and your target language. Identify the sounds that your native language has which do not exist in your target language. These are the sounds you should avoid at all costs while you speak your target language. Then, look at the sounds that that your target language has which do not exist in your native language. These are the sounds that you will need to learn how to produce. And there are a few ways to do that.
2. Learn the language’s alphabet and the pronunciation of its letters
Often, a heavy accent is caused by mispronouncing letters of the alphabet.
Even if the language you are learning uses the roman alphabet like English, it doesn’t mean the letters are pronounced the same as in English. An easy example of this is that the sound represented by /h/ in IPA is represented by the letter ‘h’ in English, ‘j’ or ‘g’ in Spanish, and ‘r’ or ‘rr’ in Portuguese. For this reason it is very important to study the letters of the alphabet. Make sure you understand not only the sound each letter makes by itself, but the different sounds it can make it different combinations.
I recommend the alphabet and its sounds to be one of the first things you study when you start learning a new language. If you’re not equipped with this knowledge, you’re much more likely to end up with a heavy accent. However, if you’re already at a more advanced level in the language and you skipped this step, it’s never too late to go back and do it!
3. Listen and imitate native speakers
To improve your pronunciation, you have to spend a lot of time actively listening to native speakers talk. This is one of the things I emphasise in my post about how I learned to speak a language fluently.
If you have got native speakers at your disposal, great! Listen to them talk and if they don’t mind, repeat words or phrases they say (you might want to ask if it’s okay with them before you start doing this!). However, if you don’t know any native speakers or are too shy to practice with them yet, there are options for you. I used Pimsleur when I was first learning Portuguese and it really helped me to start off pronouncing the words right as well as learn the basic words and phrases. If you’re a bit more advanced, you could use FluentU to listen to native speakers on video. Just make sure to keep pausing the video and imitate the speech as much as possible.
4. Get feedback from native speakers
If you haven’t interacted with real native speakers yet, at some point this step will be necessary. You’ll need to confirm whether you’re pronouncing the words as well as you think you are (hint: you’re usually not). Make sure to let the person know to be critical of your accent and correct you whenever necessary. One thing I did when I was learning Spanish was read books out loud to native speakers and have them correct any words I read wrong. Bonus points if they can also show you where in the mouth the sound is supposed to be pronounced.
5. Learn how to pronounce each new word
If you know the spelling rules, you might have a good idea of how to pronounce a word before you ever hear it. However, it is important not to assume. So if you have even the smallest doubt about how to pronounce something, make sure to look it up (most online dictionaries allow you to listen to the word’s pronunciation) or ask a native speaker of the language you’re learning. If you learn the correct way to pronounce each new word, you’ll be much less likely to have a heavy accent.
6. Stick to one regional accent
Most languages have a number of different accents that vary region by region. If you want to have a natural sounding accent, your best bet is to choose one region. Learn the pronunciation of that accent, and stick to it when you talk. This is because if you start talking with a mixture of different accents and regionalisms, it will be difficult for anyone from any region to understand you.
Count yourself lucky that you actually get to choose your accent – most native speakers don’t get this privilege. However, be careful when you decide to make sure you are choosing the best accent. If you know a few speakers from a certain region, or particularly like the sound of a certain accent, these can be good reasons to choose that accent. In some languages, there is one regional accent that dominates the entertainment industry. This would be another good option as you’ll have a lot of access to TV shows or movies where this accent is spoken.
Further reading: The difference between Latin American Spanish and Spanish from Spain
7. Learn intonation and sentence pronunciation
So far, we’ve been talking mostly about words. But to improve your pronunciation, you’ll also need to think about how you pronounce whole phrases and sentences, and your sentence intonation. In my opinion, this is the hardest thing to perfect and one of the biggest contributors to a heavy accent. As above, listening to, imitating, and receiving feedback from native speakers can help you to make your speech sound more natural.
>> Do you need to improve your pronunciation in the language you’re learning? Do you think you have a heavy accent? Otherwise, what strategies have you used to neutralise your pronunciation and do you agree with my advice? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.
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