One aspect of speaking a foreign language which learners often find difficult is acquiring a good accent. This week we’re looking at this topic and we’ll be providing some tips on how to improve your accent in the foreign language. The content on this post is restricted to members of the Radio Lingua Club. If you’re already a member then you can access this by logging into your Control Panel and then returning to this page.

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Episode 05 – You are ze corned beef to me, I am ze cabbage to you

[audio:https://radiolingua.com/thevault/rlnclub/lal/week05/langtips-05.mp3]

I remember as a child trying to impersonate the incurable romantic skunk Pepé le Pew and thinking that it must be how French people really speak. Or at least how French skunks speak… In this episode of our coaching course helping you with your language studies, we’ll find how Pepé can help us with our accents.

I believe that trying to speak in an authentic accent when learning a foreign language is very important, and yet it’s one of the things which some learners find really quite difficult. We’ll be revisiting this topic several times in the course of these lessons, but because developing a good accent is something that comes with time, it’s important to look at it early on so that you can use these tips and ideas as you move along your language-learning journey.

The secret to developing a good accent is EAR-training – that’s E-A-R training:

E is for Examine (or Eavesdrop!)

When starting your process of developing a better accent in the language you’re learning you should begin by examining (or eavesdropping on) conversations. These may be conversations among native speakers, or conversations you hear on the learning materials you’re using. Listen carefully to how the speakers use the language, and if you’re using some kind of recorded material, listen over and over again to the conversations. If you’re a Coffee Break French or Spanish listener, the dialogues in lessons 31-40 are perfect for this. Don’t worry about the meaning of what you hear just yet – you need to focus first on the sound of the language.

A is for Analyse

Once you’ve heard the conversation you need to analyse what you hear. How does the language sound? Think about the types of consonant sounds you hear: if you’re learning French you’ll hear the French ‘r’ as in royaume; if it’s Spanish you’re learning you’ll hear ‘j’ as in Guadalajara and ‘ñ’ as in caña; if you’re learning Mandarin you’ll hear lots of examples of the Mandarin ‘r’ as in rén 人, or the Swedish consonant combination ‘sj’ as in själv.

Think very carefully about the vowel sounds in the language you’re learning. Are they open and clear like Spanish or Japanese vowels? Or are they nasal like French or some Portuguese vowels?

Don’t concentrate only about the pronunciation, however: consider also the rhythm of the words. Of course, different speakers use different rhythms, just as in your native language, but it’s sometimes possible to identify a Spanish rhythm, or an Italian rhythm.

The other aspect of a language is its melody: whether the words go up or down in pitch as you hear them. Of course, in some languages the melody of a sentence changes if you’re asking a question or if you’re making a statement. In my Russian studies I’ve been finding it difficult to raise my voice at the right part of the sentence when asking a question: the sentence это кофе? means “is this coffee?” and my natural instinct would be to raise my voice at the end of the sentence. However, if I listen to a Russian speaker he’s more likely to say это кофе? raising his voice only on the о of кофе, the stressed syllable. So, when you’re listening to a language listen to the melody of what is being said, in preparation for the next stage…

R is for Reproduce

Having examined or eavesdropped on native speakers and analysed what you heard, it’s now time to reproduce these sounds, rhythms and melodies yourself. This won’t come immediately and you’ll have to practise producing the sounds consciously. I would strongly suggest that you record yourself saying some words and phrases and then listen to yourself and analyse your own speech patterns. If you don’t have access to some kind of recording device, you may be able to record yourself on your mobile phone or mp3 player, and if that’s not a possibility, you can always leave yourself a voicemail. It’s important to listen to the sounds you are producing and hear what other people hear when you speak. Have you ever heard a recording of yourself and thought, “that doesn’t sound like me”? You need to make sure that you’re producing the sounds you think you’re producing.

So, with my EAR-training method, hopefully you’ll begin to develop a deeper understanding of the sounds you should try produce in the foreign language, and you’ll become more confident at reproducing them when you speak.

But I feel silly…

This is perhaps the biggest stumbling block when it comes to developing a good accent. Most of us are a bit self-conscious in some ways, and putting on a “funny accent” isn’t something which comes naturally to many people. Indeed, I think this is one of the worst things about language-teaching in schools in many English-speaking countries: so often we start teaching our children to speak a foreign language right at the age they become self-conscious.

Here’s the thing: if you’re learning French and you’re worried about people laughing at you when you speak French in a French accent, think carefully about the two scenarios I’m about to explain:

  • You’re speaking to a native speaker and you don’t understand what she’s said. You say, “je suis désolé, je ne comprends pas” (in your own accent, be it Scottish, English, American or whatever!)
  • Or, you’re speaking to the same native speaker and you say in your best French accent, “je suis désolé, je ne comprends pas”.

I can guarantee that there’s more chance that the native speaker will find the first version funnier than the second! No matter how bad you think your French or Spanish or Italian accent is, it’s better to try using it than to speak as you would do in English!

You may well feel a bit silly to begin with, but as you get more used to the sounds of the language, and to the sounds you make when speaking the language, you’ll quickly become more comfortable.

Is there anything else I can do?

Yes, and this is where Pepé le Pew comes in… We all know that it sounds quite charming if a French gentleman tells a romantic story in English using a French accent, or if a beautiful Spanish woman comes up to you in the café and speaks English in her Spanish accent. We know what English sounds like when spoken by native speakers of the language we’re learning, so sometimes it’s worth putting on a French accent in English to reinforce the sounds of the language – the prononciation of the vowels and consonants, or speaking in a Spanish accent to develop the ritmo and the melodía of Spanish. And you can throw in a word or two of the language if you know them. I would, however, suggest that you do this on your own – you don’t want to offend anyone, or make other people think that your love for language-learning has gone too far!

In this episode I’ve suggested that you should study native speakers and how they use the language. Unfortunately not everyone is surrounded by native speakers, so next time I’ll be sharing with you a couple of tips for accessing virtual native speakers. Until then, thanks for listening.

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    2 replies to "RLN Club – Learn a language 05"

    • Ann Hart

      Great episode thank you. Great ideas, I particularly like the idea of leaving yourself a voicemail message – a really simple and quick way to record your voice, which can be done anywhere and played back multiple times easily.

    • André Beukes

      I must admit what has helped me was eavesdropping. Sitting in bars and listening to native speakers and not caring if I make a total idiot of myself, has helped. I have found most people love to help you speak their language properly. My accent is not perfect, but people do not think I am a native English speaker anymore.

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