When we start to learn a language, we tend to focus mainly on the goal and learning vocabulary and grammar. While those are crucial to improving your level in said language, they cannot suffice to actually speak the language well.
While, after learning a long list of vocabulary and grammar points, you may feel comfortable in a language, the people listening to you will always end up slowing down their speech rhythm or lower the level of vocabulary they will use with you.
Why? you may ask. The answer is simple: your Accent.
If your native accent is too strong when you speak this new language, then the person listening will always feel a bit unease and believe your skills are not yet there.
I, as a French person, have seen many people who had learned French to some extent. However, whenever I speak with someone who has a strong knowledge in French, if their accent somehow “doesn’t feel right”, I subconsciously will use simpler vocabulary. It usually won’t be a conscious choice, but I will realize it after finishing the conversation, wondering if my point came through due to the simple vocabulary I ended up using.
On the other side of the spectrum, the first time I came to Japan, 6 years ago, I believed my level was quite high (it was close to JLPT N2). However, whenever I talked with someone, I felt that it was just “too easy”. There wasn’t any challenge. However, after a few months, I started seeing more and more challenges in conversations. When studying a language, we expect things to get easier, not harder, with more study.
So what happened?
I had focused on improving my accent and the results were showing. It had gotten better and people were starting to speak freely without controlling their way of conversing. I was being acknowledged as a better Japanese speaker than I actually, all thanks to my better accent.
Now, 6 years later, I find challenges daily in using my Japanese. Not due to my level having gone down (on the contrary), but due to the fact that I am not longer considered a Japanese learner, but a Japanese speaker. Colleagues, friends, new people I meet, etc. will just speak freely to me and end up using more complicated words or expressions. Now, don’t get me wrong! I love it and this is how I am still improving, but this feels somewhat counter-intuitive doesn’t it?
Luca Lampariello, an Italian polyglot, is well known for his handle of accents in the languages he speaks. He obviously makes mistakes while he speaks, but his accent contributes to making those feel okay. We all do mistakes in our native languages and this just feels the same way. Don’t hesitate to
So why don’t you give it a go and try improving your accent?
Here are a few ways organized by level of study:
- Do NOT speak for a while and learn the way to pronounce the language’s script as well as possible.
- Learn the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) can go a long way for this.
- Listen to as much content as possible but do NOT repeat it until you have made sure you know how to pronounce individually each letter (or character). You may create and consolidate a wrong accent which will take much longer to get rid of later on.
Intermediate and Advanced:
- Speak more and more. You can never speak enough when learning a language
- Read texts out loud. This will provide you with crucial practice when you are alone and also improve your speaking speed.
- Find specific words/intonations for which your pronunciation is “off” and then repeat those until you get them right. Don’t hesitate to ask people around you to point those out as they may be difficult to notice on your own. From this point onward, there is only one solution to real improvement: practice.
So get out there and learn to speak like a native: A good accent with mistakes in vocabulary or grammar in the middle!