Alexandre Coute, Accent reduction specialist
Updated Mar 29, 2014· Author has 296 answers and 641.4k answer views
To get to the core of your question, I’d like to split the general concept of native-like pronunciation into two types of abilities:
1)The ability to entertain conversations with native speakers about a variety of topics while leaving them with the impression that you are a native speaker of the language.
2) The ability to pronounce a language in a way that replicates the pronunciation of native speakers, but without having yet attained native-level knowledge of the language.
The first category is the result of a long learning process and can only be achieved once a person has mastered both the language and its pronunciation. This is a level of achievement that involves much more than pronunciation alone.
The second category is an intermediate step, and I think this is what your question is about: after all, lots of people have a perfect command of a language without sounding native, while others can sound like a native even without that complete knowledge.
My second language, English, probably falls in the first category. I am usually mistaken for a native speaker. I have been mistaken for a native speaker in other languages as well, during much shorter exchanges, though. For instance, I have been told that I can sound like a native speaker in German (by Judith Meyer, inter alia) and Japanese (at least for rehearsed sentences and certainly for short phrases). In this optic, I think I might be able to help answer your question.
The short answer provides very little hope: I think it’s a matter of innate ability and I don’t really know what I do as it’s largely an instinctive process and I have no method or technique I can share. Really, as much as I’ve toyed with this concept, I don’t think there is anything I can say that can immediately allow another person to unlock native-like pronunciation.
Hopefully, the long answer can provide additional insight into what happens when a person acquires native-like pronunciation, insight that might prove profitable to some.
Before I delve into the issue, I’d like to address the question of the validity of the quest for better or perfect pronunciation. Despite the hordes of people who will eagerly tell you that you are wasting your time, learning to produce better and clearer pronunciation is definitely a worthy and valid endeavour. Of course, it’s a choice and you can choose to disregard it, but if you choose to work on it, it IS worth the time and effort. In any case, I don’t think anyone should be discouraged from trying to improve their accent.
Why do people have accents?
When learning a second language, people tend to use the sound system of their own language and apply it to another. If you know that a language like Japanese has 5 vowels while French has 16, you can imagine how this simply can’t work. Yet, people do it. Probably because they lack the skill to properly categorize sounds that they have never heard, or because they are unable to hear them or produce them correctly, or because they can’t easily remap sounds onto a different paradigm. In any case, people do it, and that’s why they have an accent in their second language.
The Example of Tank in English, French and Japanese
To get an idea of how different speakers use strategies from their own language, let’s look at the word tank and how speakers of 3 different languages would pronounce it. I will present a rather detailed play-by-play description of what happens so you can get a clear picture of how each language resorts to distinct series of fine-tuned strategies to produce sounds.
If you are a native speaker of English, you are, in quick succession, going to go from an aspirated t, pronounced with the tip of the tongue moved away from the teeth touching the top of the mouth, followed by a strong puff of air when the tongue leaves the top of mouth, the air will continue to come out of your mouth and pass through your non-vibrating vocal cords while the tongue moves into the proper position to pronounce a low and front a, then your vocal chords will start vibrating as your nasal passage opens up to produce a nasal a, after which your tongue will move back to produce an ng sound, which, upon closure of the nasal passage, will yield a k that you will only softly and barely release.
In French, the t would not be aspirated and the tongue would be further to the front, against the teeth, the opening and closure of the nasal passage would perfectly match the vowel (you would either go from a non nasal vowel to the nasal consonant with no blending, or you’d have a nasal vowel and no nasal consonant after), but the vowel would be different since the English front a doesn’t exist in French, so it would be mapped to another a vowel position, and finally, the k would be much more audible and released at the end.
In Japanese, the t would be similar to the French t described above, there would also be no aspiration, the vowel would be only slightly nasalized and it would also be different from the English front a, the ng sound would be slightly different from the English one because the placement of the previous vowel would still, at this point of the word, affect the placement of the front of the tongue, making the ng sound slightly different, and the final k would be released and followed by a more or less voiceless high vowel because Japanese morphology dictates that only vowels and n can end a syllable. Moreover, while the French and English speaker see this word as having a single syllable, the Japanese speaker is forced to add contour to what he perceives as three morae (a type of syllabic unit) ta/n/ku and he will assign a high or low pitch to each mora, most probably yielding HLL or LHH.
Whoever has mastered the pronunciation of these languages does this acrobatic dance instinctively, consistently, perfectly, all within a half-second or so.
A comment you often hear – from people who have no idea what else to suggest – is that you will just pick it up. Well, that doesn’t happen. You don’t just pick it up. People who manage to pull it off do it because they pay close attention to detail, and are careful about continually improving until they nail it.
To produce these sounds perfectly is like a choreography. The dancer understands what kinds of movements are involved, she looks at how she must place her body in certain very specific positions, she learns to go smoothly from one to the next, and she practices transitions and groups of movements at various speeds until she can do it in one perfect sequence at full speed.
Pronunciation is similar: you try to get all the sounds right, include all of their features, then you put them together, you transition from word to word until you can produce an entire sentence or phrase in one go, at natural speed. The more you practice this, the more the brain learns to look ahead and becomes able to predict common patterns and produce them with fluidity. It takes time, but it starts on day one. People who claim that a so-called silent period will allow them to get better pronunciation have got it wrong: you need to start practicing from day one, and you have to keep making adjustments until you get it right.
Pronouncing entire sentences with native-like flow and sound really is like a choreography. If you go through a series of sounds and you get tripped or things don’t come out quite right, you find the problem and you start over. This is not really possible in real life, so you do this on your own, when you practice.
Sometimes, I’ll realize, as I say something, that it’s coming out wrong. For instance, I’ll start a German sentence and midway, I feel like “ah, that intonation pattern started off on the wrong foot” — I’ll sometimes modify the rest of my sentence to match what I started, or I’ll start over. It’s a long process, but as I continue to monitor what I say and correct myself when I sound off, I know I’m getting closer to the goal.
Constant Monitoring and Adjustments
When I tackle a new language, I somehow manage to gather an understanding of how sounds interact. I listen and I try to mimic. I play around, I go too far, I come back to the sound, I transition between them, until I get a feel for what each sound is allowed to do in the language. I don’t do this methodically, nor do I take notes or write anything down: I listen, I experiment, and instinctively, I eventually develop a feel for the language and its sounds.
This usually takes some time and it’s a gradual process. Sometimes, I know I got it right — I know I got the vowel bang on, I can just feel it all over. Sometimes, I know I’m close but something’s off, or else I only get it right sometimes or around certain other sounds. So I keep listening, I keep trying, I keep playing around with the sound until eventually, it just clicks. I think this is like athletes learning new moves — you give the brain the time to adapt, you keep working on it, and eventually, you get it.
A month ago, I’ve started learning Romanian. This provides for an interesting example as I’d never studied it before, nor had I really heard it properly. I’m using Assimil and I listened to 10 lessons of Pimsleur’s beforehand. I feel like I’ve got a good grip of the sounds now, and actually, I continue to work through Assimil without using the recordings anymore because I find them to be a waste of time. I might be mispronouncing some words here and there, but not the sounds. I know what they are. However, I’ve got a bit of an issue with the vowel â (a high centered vowel, like the Russian ы). Sometimes I say the sound and I know I got it spot on, I can just feel it – it’s kind of exhilarating actually, kind of like smashing a ball right in the corner of the tennis court, just where you wanted it to go. Other times, I feel like it’s close, but not quite, that I have too much tension in my jaw or my lips, that’s something’s off. But I know it’s getting there and that I’ll eventually get it right. I just keep listening and trying — not all at once, but over time, because I also know that my muscles and brain take some time to get used to the sounds. It’s not instant.
Discerning Sounds and Controling Production
The difficulty for most people lies in the fact that they are unable to discern minute changes in sounds, much less to produce and reproduce such characteristics with consistency. And this is the part where there is virtually nothing I can tell you that could help you. If you can’t hear it, you can’t hear it. And if you can’t produce it, there is also little I can say that will change that. Personally, I don’t always get a sound on first try either, and I don’t think anyone could get me to do it; I know I’ll need to keep trying and give it some time.
However, this ability to hear and produce different sounds with subtlety is crucial, so the best I can say is keep trying, keep listening, keep practicing, never stop, but give your brain the time to adapt.
Speaking vs. Reading
My focus with languages has always been speaking. I’d even say that the more you speak, the more you understand (for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here). A lot of people focus on reading and writing when learning a language, and that is perfectly fine, however if someone is going to acquire a perfect accent, they’ll have to focus on speaking. You can’t be good at something unless you do a lot of it, and if you want to excel at speaking, you’ll have to speak.
On the Value of Shadowing and Mimicking
(In language learning, shadowing is an activity that consists in learning a text in order to be able to read it or recite it alongside a recording.)
I have to be straight with you: I think shadowing is a waste of time. The only exception is perhaps for people who have no idea what fluency feels like and who could truly benefit from learning a text by heart and reciting it at natural speed. Otherwise, when people use shadowing, they sometimes show an improvement while they shadow, but this improvement invariably fails to carry over to their regular speech. Even Prof. Arguelles, who helped popularize this method a great deal, said on his website: My Chinese pronunciation is confessedly atrocious, but it is infinitely better when I am shadowing than when I am not. (http://www.foreignlanguageexpertise.com/foreign_language_study.html#svd)
I strongly believe that mimicking native speakers is fundamental; however, since language and pronunciation vary significantly based on the speaker and the situation, I think it’s much more profitable to copy, over time, a whole variety of people in all kinds of natural situations rather than repeat the same scripted thing over and over. When I watch TV or listen to another language, I always find myself instinctively repeating parts of what I hear, even when I can’t make out the meaning. If I do understand some of the language, I listen, and whenever something strikes me, I repeat it, I copy what I hear. I’ll do this several times over the course of a show, and eventually, I develop a sense of sound and intonation that is directly matched with intention and feeling. I think this is also a lot more powerful than shadowing can be.
It was always obvious to me that if I’m going to sound like a native, I have to try to be like one, act like one, sound like one, think like one. However, I eventually realized that not everyone did that, and that not everyone wanted to do that. Actually, it turns out that a large section of the population considers that the way they talk is so intimately connected to their personality, to who they are, that in reality, they are not interested in sounding like a native speaker of another language! This took me a while to wrap my head around, but I’ve met so many people who would flat-out admit that they would not want to be mistaken for a speaker of another language that I’ve concluded it’s quite an important psychological factor for a lot of learners. You want to sound like a native speaker? You have to be one in your head.
Innate skill or Expertise?
I can only identify two reasons why a person would be able to attain perfect pronunciation in a second language while others can’t: either he has some innate ability (call it an alignment of skills that happens to be favorable to this specific task, if you prefer) or he has a lot of experience, training and knowledge about languages.
A lot of people — and this is probably true of a majority of polyglots — don’t agree with the idea that one can be gifted for languages. At the same time, most are willing to make a small exception for pronunciation. I’m not sure I get the rationale, but allow me to exploit that breach: I think it just comes down to talent.
To be fair, I do have a lot of experience in learning languages (studied 16, 17?), and I do have a degree in Linguistics and a practical knowledge of phonetics and phonology, but I don’t think this is the answer. First of all, a lot of people with more experience, training and knowledge than I don’t acquire native-like pronunciation, so that alone can’t do it. Secondly, pronunciation was always easy for me, as far back as I can remember, even before I had much experience with languages or any knowledge of Linguistics at all. Moreover, I grew up — before the Internet, I should add — in an entirely monolingual town (and family) until I was 16, so it’s not because I was exposed to sounds or languages either. For all of this, I conclude that it’s probably at least partly innate.
If it’s indeed innate, this implies that there is little I can tell you that will help you. It would mean it can’t be taught. But while I don’t think you can teach anyone to acquire a perfect accent — that is you can’t make anyone have a better accent — I do believe you can provide a person with the tools they need to improve significantly. It’s an incredibly intangible and hidden process, but one can improve once equiped with the right knowledge and with a significant amount of introspection and drive. I also think there is some value in having a coach guide you and provide you with information on what you need to address first.
If you want to know how to acquire native-like pronunciation, if there is an answer to be found, it’s inside you.