Hitting the Right Notes – How and Why to Learn an Accent
Have you ever searched up the lyrics for a song only to feel disappointed when you read them? Sometimes the beauty of a song isn’t only in the words, but in the music itself. The rise and fall of the melody, the blend of instruments and voices, the unexpected high notes – held until you think the singer might pass out – all of these elements can help bring a song to life.
The same is true of language. When we’re learning a language, it’s easy to focus only on words and grammar – after all, there are always more grammar rules and vocabulary to memorize! But learning the words of a language without understanding its natural melody is like learning a song without music. You might understand it, but you are missing the full experience.
When I listen to a speaker of an unfamiliar language the words themselves can seem meaningless. But if I focus on the speaker – the way he moves his lips, the small inflections in his voice, the way he elongates one vowel and clips off another – I am able to absorb the language in a way that I never could otherwise.
This is why learning the musical undertones of a language is so important. We often refer to these undertones as ‘accent.’ And while some may feel that developing a good accent is not worth their time, there are many arguments to suggest otherwise.
Why bother learning an accent?
Accents are more than just a way of speaking. They are a connection to culture. Where you live in the world – and even within your own country – colors your accent.
Learning a native accent changes the way you communicate with others and the way that others communicate with you. How often have you started a conversation in your target language only to be immediately recognized as a foreigner? It’s difficult to practice a new language when your listeners keep switching to English!
An ill-fitting accent can also create an invisible barrier between speaker and listener. When you learn to speak a language in tune, you will quickly find that people respond more positively. Conversations lengthen and deepen, and your confidence grows. By taking the time to learn not only what people say, but how they say it, you will expand your experience of a place and its people immeasurably.
If this doesn’t seem like incentive enough, consider this.
Learning your target language with the correct accent actually allows for faster learning and easier memorization.
Pronunciation is a separate skill much like reading, speaking or vocabulary acquisition. With the right tools, you can learn to pronounce a word without even knowing what it means.
How exactly do I learn an accent?
Here are a few tips to get you talking in tune!
In the early stages of learning a language, teaching your mouth to pronounce sounds can pay huge dividends. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and our Fluent Forever pronunciation videos and tutorials, can get you off to a good start. Each letter in the IPA represents not only a sound but a method of producing that sound. Learning a new language, with its unknown vowel and consonant sounds, can seem daunting. But consider this – almost all consonant and vowels are produced by taking familiar lip and tongue positions and just recombining them in slightly new ways. For instance, many ‘new’ French vowel sounds are just familiar tongue positions from English, with rounded lips. What you’ll discover is that an old mouth really can learn old tricks, as long as you have good guidance along the way.
Be a shadow
As children we all learned to speak our native tongue by listening to others around us and copying the sounds they made. While this is probably the most organic way of learning a language, it’s almost impossible to replicate the learning environment we had in infancy. This is why linguist Alexander Arguelles developed a technique known as shadowing.
Shadowing involves finding an auditory resource in your target language, like an audio book or a textbook with an audio component, and using it to master the sounds of a language.
The process involves several steps:
- listening to an audio recording while repeating the words aloud
- listening to and repeating the same recording while simultaneously reading a transcription of the text
By performing these steps multiple times, you can begin to feel the flow of the language while achieving more accurate pronunciation. (Arguelles suggests walking while talking, maintaining good posture, and speaking loudly and clearly to maximize focus and learning).
Watch and learn
Immersing yourself in a language is a sure-fire strategy for absorbing its accent and rhythm. When you have an opportunity to chat with a native speaker, avoid listening passively. Instead, study the way her mouth moves, the way she strings syllables together, her gestures and facial expressions. If you don’t have the luxury of meeting in person, try using italki or another live tutoring site.
Lights, camera, action
Many of the world’s finest actors are incredibly shy. By pretending to be someone else they are able to shed their inhibitions. Embrace your inner polyglot performer! Try mimicking some of the native speakers you’ve encountered in person or through online tutoring sites. Wave your hands in the air, add in tiny colloquial filler words, and adjust your facial expressions.
Can’t think of what to say? Try talking about your life, the weather, sports – topics that frequently show up in “small talk” situations. It’s a great way to gain confidence and feel the language in your bones.
Twist and shout
If you run into sounds that are difficult to pronounce – combinations which don’t exist in your native language for instance – try backchaining. Start by pronouncing the sound or syllable at the end of the word and gradually work your way back to the beginning, adding a letter or phoneme at a time. Check out our blog article here on backchaining here to see how it works!
Tongue twisters are another great way to get your mind and mouth working in sync. They also work well with backchaining! Teaching your tongue to pronounce a sound creates muscle memory. In time, as you slip these sounds into longer words, you’ll find that your mouth will remember how to pronounce them, all on its own!
Why settle for simply speaking new words when you can sing them! Learning to sing in your target language can be an effective way to learn pronunciation, vocabulary, and the natural phrasing of a language. Try singing a song in your target language and repeating the lyrics until you can pronounce them perfectly. (Check your pronunciation with a tutor or native speaker). Music of any genre will work, but rap music offers a great opportunity to work on both speed and accuracy.
Shadowing can also be used effectively when working with music. Whenever possible, listen to a song first on its own, a second time while looking at the lyrics, and finally, sing along!
The early bird gets the accent
Most importantly, start early. In time your speech patterns will fossilize, making them less amenable to change. A small quirk can eventually morph into a bad habit, bleeding into other words and grammatical structures. Take the time to listen to and learn the music of your language. It could mean the difference between a language symphony and a bad night of karaoke 🙂
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