Even if you can’t master a native accent, the key is to be clear and comprehensible. Anne Merritt offers five top tips.
The tongue, lips, teeth and breath all contribute to the way a sound comes out of the mouth.
Many language learners will work tirelessly on their pronunciation skills, spending long hours (and sometimes large sums of money) in hopes of attaining that clear and perfect native accent.
In this teacher’s opinion, it’s a goal that sets you up for failure.
First off, it’s incredibly hard to imitate a flawless accent, especially as adult learners. Moreover, it’s not essential. Instead of trying to pass as a native speaker, language learners should instead focus on honing their pronunciation so that it’s clear and easy to understand. It’s a far more attainable goal, and one that can be reached with the following tips:
The parrot approach
As with any language skill, practice is key. For pronunciation, the more focused listening and repetition a learner does, the more comfortable they become with the phonics and sound patterns of the language. Listen-and-repeat exercises can be done with any medium, from traditional language learning CDs to TV, movies, and song lyrics. Podcasts about language study or any other topic are especially helpful, because listeners can adjust the speed of the audio and replay sounds easily.
These exercises also help self-conscious speakers become more familiar with pronunciation. The parroting of accent and inflection may feel silly, or even mocking of the target culture. This, however, is a case of simple discomfort, which will pass in time.
Mind the stress
The English language is one that stresses words (“BROC-co-li”; “trans-por-TA-tion”). It is the instinct of native English speakers to use our own framework of stress patterns when we learn new words. However, we can’t project our own assumptions about rhythm onto foreign language. Some languages have different stress patterns, while many do not use stress at all.
When learning the new vocabulary of a foreign language, it is important to be mindful of stress, or absence of stress, in new words. It helps neutralise your own British accent, and start adopting the accent of your target language.
Use a mirror
Sometimes it’s not enough to imitate a new word based on sound alone. There are physical mechanics at play, too. The tongue, lips, teeth and breath all contribute to the way a sound comes out of the mouth. When trying to manage a word that’s tough to pronounce, learners should grab a hand mirror and try to move the mouth in the same way that native speakers do. This is best done with a teacher or friend who can demonstrate the sound, but imitating speakers on television or YouTube can work, too.
For trickier vowel sounds, learners can even consult a Vowel Trapezoid, a diagram of the mouth used by linguists to map where the sound is made. Visual learners may find them to be a handy study tool.
Practise in context
To practise the pronunciation of a word or phrase, it’s best to review it on its own and in the context of a full sentence. The reason? Some word pairings will subtly alter pronunciation. Mastering these pairings is a key component in emulating a native accent. The English language is full of words whose pronunciation changes slightly with context, depending on the type of English accent. For example, the word “will” has a definitive “i” sound, but in the phrase “will you,” the “i” tends to become a “oo” as in “wool.”
After using all of these tools, students can record their speaking exercises and listen back. The mistakes learners make are often not conscious. They tend to be the product of those deep-seated patterns of our native tongue, such as stress and inflection. Listening to oneself is a good way to hone in on strengths and weaknesses. Most smartphones come with a built-in voice memo app, and websites like Audacity and Vocaroo let users make audio files for free.