Many English learners would like to “sound like a native English speaker.” What about that? Is it necessary? Or is it a good idea to even try? What can, or should, an English learner try to do about accent?
Language and accent
Sociologists tell us that language does two things for us. First and most importantly, it makes communication possible. Accent contributes to good communication, but it’s a surprisingly small part. If you visit the U.S., you’ll hear many accents. We are, after all, a country of immigrants. Many politicians, entertainers, news announcers, and everyday Americans have noticeable accents. But they communicate very well. We often don’t even think about it when we hear an accent.
The second thing language does is identify you as a member of a social group. Your language may identify what part of the country you come from – people from Boston sound much different than people from Dallas. It may identify your profession or level of education – people with more education often use different vocabulary than people with less education. It may identify what country you came from – Mexican-Americans sound different than Asian-Americans. Accent is part of your identification, but again, only a part. Vocabulary and other language elements also help identify the group you belong to.
What to do
What should you do about your accent if you’re a language learner? First become a good communicator. Read and listen. Get as much comprehensible input – understandable English – as you can. This is the most effective and efficient way to build your overall fluency, or language ability.
If you want to modify your accent, be realistic. You’ll always sound like you! You may be able to change your accent so you sound more like me. But you will never sound exactly like me. And that’s okay! That’s what we expect.
If you want to modify your accent, do it by listening to English that sounds the way you want to sound. Like other parts of language development, accent modification is mostly the result of the language you hear.
Modifying your accent
There are several things you can do to help modify your accent:
Identify with the language and the people who use it. Some describe this as seeing yourself as a “member of the club,” the group of people who share the language. Dr. Stephen Krashen says that “we acquire the accents of the group we feel we are members of or feel we can join. This explains why children do not talk exactly like their parents talk – they talk the way their friends talk.” In your mind, become a member of the English-users club.
“Empathy” can also be used to describe this kind of identification. Empathy is your ability to identify with another person or group of people, to understand and share their feelings. There is research evidence that high empathy leads to better accent. And some believe that reading and listening to fiction helps develop empathy. In other words, reading and listening to American fiction – pleasure reading – will help you develop a connection with the culture and the language and the people who use it.
Become fascinated with English. Fascination is like a magnet that pulls you in the direction you want to go. If you’re attracted to a language and the people who use it, if you really want to sound like one of them, your accent will change more than if you feel like you have to do it. Allow yourself to become fascinated with English. Don’t treat it like a subject to study. Enjoy it.
Practice “thoughtful listening.” When you listen thoughtfully, you hear more than words. You hear the music, or sound, of the language. You hear the melody – the up and down movement of a speaker’s voice. You hear the tempo – the way speakers speed up or slow down. You hear the rhythm – sounds that are emphasized and sounds that aren’t. You get the language sound in your mind and it becomes a part of you.
Thoughtful listening – being thoughtful about what you hear – requires listening with relaxed concentration. It’s enjoying and noticing, but not analyzing. Thoughtful listening doesn’t happen automatically. It may take time to develop. But the benefits will be worth it!
A final word
I recently asked an English learner why he wanted to speak like a native American. He told me that relationships were important in his work and that he was worried that his accent would make good relationships difficult. I can understand his desire for good relationships, but I don’t believe he needs to worry. Remember, you are more than your accent. If you’re the kind of person that others enjoy being around, you’ll enjoy good relationships even with your accent. We don’t care so much how you sound. But we do care what kind of person you are.
References: Krashen, A conjecture on accent in a second language (1997); Dealing with English fever (2003); Science Daily, What makes an accent in a foreign language lighter? Empathy and political identification with native speakers (2009).