What about my accent?

02.03.2011

in Beyond the Basics, In Your Head

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.

Warren Ediger

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).

Carmen February 3, 2011

Thanks very much for your advice. I enjoy a lot

lamberwang February 3, 2011

very good,thanks for your suggesting.

Sanaz February 4, 2011

I like your point about “thoughtful listening”.
I call it “mindful listening”! Be all ears for the music, sound, tempo, and rhythm we found in words.
Many thanks!

reza February 6, 2011

Thanks a lot, very helpful.
can you recommend us some references to learn about different types of American accent, i mean as an english learner staying outside the US it’s not easy for us to find out the accent we’re hearing or like to sound like that?

Tq,

Warren Ediger February 6, 2011

Thank you all for the comments.

Reza, most of us in the U.S. sound similar, unless we come from Boston, the deep South, (Alabama, for example), Texas, or other places that have a unique sound. The majority sound is the sound you usually hear from most network news announcers (CNN, NBC, etc.), the sound you’ll hear on audiobooks (unless they’re trying to imitate a specific regional or national accent). It’s the sound you’ll hear on the ESL Podcast or VOA. There may be small differences, but they’re not important. The similarity is enough that I wouldn’t try to “go shopping” for a specific American accent.

Vasiliy February 7, 2011

Nice advice, thank you…. In my opinion the most effective way to work at you prononciation is to listen to your own speech and to compare it with native speaker. So it helped me to discover some pecularities specific for russian-speakers (e.g. softening some vowels like “i”)

Warren Ediger February 9, 2011

Vasily – The approach you describe may be appropriate for solving a few problems, but it’s neither efficient nor effective for general use. The time spent on this kind of activity would be better spent on more listening – where the total benefit is much greater.

In general, English learners should worry less about accent and trust the listening they do to help lead them to an appropriate, understandable accent.

Idi Oumarou Ibrahim February 15, 2011

Thank you very much indeed for your advise, Dr. Warren Ediger!

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