It’s a dreaded phenomenon that happens to the best of us–a foreign accent. No one, no matter how rich, privileged or educated is immune.
It happens to world leaders:
It happens to even the most creative and brilliant of us:
And it most definitely happens to Americans who try to learn Russian:
If you started learning a foreign language anytime after puberty (see The Critical Period Hypothesis), chances are, you will have a foreign accent in your second, third, fourth and all subsequent languages. Language learners everywhere dream of the day when they can have a fluid conversation with a native and not have the native visibly straining to understand what they are saying. And for the dreamers and linguistic perfectionists like myself, we lay in bed at night fantasizing of interactions where people automatically assume we’re native and don’t charge us double for souvenirs or taxi fares. I’ve only had a handful of such interactions, after which I, rest assured, was so beside myself I had to quickly slip into a bathroom stall or empty corridor to do a triumphant happy dance.
Although native-like pronunciation can be hard to achieve, there are strategies that can be employed to improve pronunciation. I’ll share with you some things that have been proven through research in the field of Second Language Acquisition as well as my own personal experiences as a learner and teacher of Russian.
- First try to hear the difference: It stands to reason that if you can’t even hear the difference between the Russian ы and и, or English ‘l’ and ‘r’ it is going to be hard for you to produce the difference yourself. Surround yourself with the language, preferably with audio and visual cues given at the same time. Listen to a song and read the lyrics as you go. Listen to isolated words that contrast the two sounds you are struggling with and test yourself to see if you are perceiving the difference correctly. You can find one such video I did for Russian palatalization here.
- Get DETAILED instruction on pronunciation: If your school offers a Phonetics and Phonology of (insert your target language here). TAKE IT! A good, trained linguist should be able to give you explicit instructions about where your tongue should be when you pronounce certain consonants and vowels. What’s interesting here is that natives are not always necessarily aware of what is happening in their mouth when they speak.
I’ve gained some of my most valuable insight by talking to other non-natives who have achieved excellent pronunciation and asked them for insight from their own personal experience. One of my ah-ha moments as a student in a Russian Phonetics and Phonology class was when I learned that ‘t’, ‘d’, ‘s’, ‘z’ and ‘n’ are dentals in Russian, meaning that they are pronounced with the tongue against the back of the teeth. I had, up until then, been pronouncing them as alveopalatals (meaning my tongue was up against the ridge behind my teeth), as we do in English. So this had probably been contributing to an accent in my Russian for many years. I feel like once I made this change, it majorly improved my pronunciation. When I taught the class years later I tried to incorporate fun (I guess only fun for a language nerd) visuals of where the tongue should be placed, accompanied by audio and even conducting experiments with our own pronunciation using PRAAT.
- Listen to music and try to sing along: This comes strictly from my own experiences. I’m not aware of any empirical research that conclusively supports this, but I feel that music improves language learning ability. As a teacher I have found that, consistently, some of my best students, with the best pronunciation are trained musicians. It seems that having your ear tuned in to the nuances of music also, in turn, tunes your ear to the nuances of language.
- INTONATION : The importance of intonation SHOULD NOT BE UNDERESTIMATED. In fact, recent research is starting to suggest that suprasegmentals (the sounds that happens at the sentence level), such as intonation, could play more of a role in sounding native than do pronunciations of vowels and consonants.One study, for example, took audio recordings of native and non-native Dutch speakers. The researchers blurred the actual words so that all that was left was the intonation of the sentence. Native dutch speakers were able to accurately pick out who was native and who was non-native simply based on their intonation. So how might these samples have sounded? Watch this amusing video entitled “How English Sounds to non-English speakers” They are speaking complete gibberish and yet it sounds like English. Why? Intonation. Moreover, intonation is crucial, in many languages, in conveying that you are asking a question or communicating inquiry. Many learners of Russian, for example, try to ask a question in Russian but, without using the proper intonation, receive only blank stares. Using correct intonation improves communication ability and leads to more of what you’ll find in the next tip.
- Confidence and speed: In most things in life you can fool a lot of people about how well you can do something if you do it confidently. The same goes with speaking a language. Try to speak at a normal pace. If you’re constantly stuttering and pausing to think a native will get frustrated and you will seem more accented. I teach my students to improve their confidence and speech rate by having lists of questions that they should be able to understand and quickly respond to. I try to help them anticipate what kinds of questions a native will ask them based on context. Even at the end of their first semester of Russian I have students who report that they met a Russian and, sure enough, the Russian asked the questions that we had been practicing and, as a result, they were able to respond confidently and fluidly.
- Mimic: The other type of student I find to consistently have excellent pronunciation are the thespian type who are able to do impressions and mimic other accents. If you’ve ever watched someone do an impression, you’ll notice that they don’t just mimic the sounds being made, but they also mimic facial expressions and gestures. This can also be incorporated in language learning. Study the natives of the language you are speaking: How are they holding their mouth? Do they slightly pucker their lips when they speak? How widely do they open their mouth? As you look around at native speech (or watch it in movies) try to mimic the physical characteristics of the people speaking that language and you will find that it helps get your face and mouth in position to better pronounce the target language.
Ultimately the fact is that some people are born with different talents for different aspects of language. Some have endless memory capacity for vocabulary. Some have pronunciation so native-like they could pass as a spy. Some intuitively understand grammar structures. Some make up for in determination and hard work what they lack in talent. The last and final tip is perhaps the most important:
7. Don’t give up! Learning another language is no small task. And as Russians say about great things that take time: Москва не сразу строилась! Moskva ne srazu stroilas’! Rome was not built in a day (Lit. Moscow was not built all at once)