In this post I'm going to discuss one of the most misunderstood parts of language learning: accent, and what you can do to improve it.
I'm not going to go into much detail about pronunciation and what it is – there are plenty of books that deal with that in exhaustive detail! Instead, we're going to get straight to what you want to know: how to improve your accent.
Let's start with some perspective.
Mass exposure to spoken language
An 8 year-old Japanese girl called Natsuko, recently moved to the UK, once came to take guitar lessons with me.
She spoke no English whatsoever, but, as you would expect from a kid of that age, after one year of living in North London and attending school she spoke excellent English with a nice rounded British accent! It was an amazing transformation to watch.
Knowing no English at the beginning, she hardly spoke. And if you can't speak, there's nothing for it but to listen. How much time do you imagine she would have spent listening to English during that year at school?
Assuming 6-hour school days, a smattering of after-school activities and 6 weeks of school holidays, I estimate about 1,500 hours.
Are you, as a language learner, as effective as an 8-year-old child in picking up an accent? Sorry to say, but it's unlikely. Long-term studies of immigrants to North America have shown that accent is the one element of language that is not only learnt more effectively by children, but is usually not learnt successfully by adults.
Now, if it took Natsuko 1,500 hours of intense listening at school, supported by teachers and classmates who would mediate their speech to help her understand… how many hours would you need? Let's be very generous and go for 2,000, give or take.
Where am I at?
How many hours have you actually spent, in practice, listening actively to the language you're learning? (Authentic language spoken by native speakers in context – not “Teach Yourself” audio CDs!)
Whatever the gap in hours is, this is what you need to work on.
It took Natsuko one year. How long would it take you to get 2,000 hours of listening in?
15 mins per day: 21.9 years
30 mins per day: 10.95 years
45 mins per day: 7.3 years
60 mins per day: 5.48 years
90 mins (the length of a movie) per day: 3.65 years
Better get started!
Now, none of this is to say that you need 2,000 hours of listening in order to be understood. Nor is it to say that you need to have a native-speaker accent. You certainly don't. However, if you are looking to improve your accent, or have ambitions in that direction, you need to start by knowing what you're aiming for – and that means a lot of listening.
What to listen to? Prioritise authentic sources: radio programmes, tv shows, movies. In order to get your hours in, it will help to find portable sources: podcasts produced in the target language (not language learning podcasts), audio books – put it all on your iPhone, ready to fire up during your commute.
Luckily, you can slash this figure of 2,000 hours by bringing to the table something that an 8-year-old child probably can't: study skills. With accent, as with everything else in language learning, it all starts with an ability to notice. You need to develop the habit of noticing the gap between where you are and where you want to be, or there is no foundation to build on.
- You don't necessarily need any special techniques. Active listening on its own is powerful and effective. Listen closely to native speakers' pronunciation of interesting words and phrases – replay them in your mind and repeat to yourself.
- Listen also to your production and notice the sound and rhythm of your words.
- Record yourself speaking and listen back. You will probably be surprised at the difference between how you think you sound and how you actually sound. Record a native speaker saying the same things and notice the differences. You'll need a friend or exchange partner for this!
- See if you can associate rhythms or melodies to phrases as you learn them. Take an interesting or difficult phrase – listen to it over and over and see if any melodies or rhythms emerge. Try to involve the other senses in your learning (clapping, humming, singing etc).
- Learn songs. Singers have to articulate individual sounds (phonemes) very clearly to make themselves understood, so songs are an excellent resource for pronunciation. The effort involved in memorising lyrics in a foreign language and the mental processing involved in associating words with melodies means that you will pay very close attention to the sounds of the words. In the process, your pronunciation will improve quickly. You'll also learn a lot of new vocabulary in the process. If there's karaoke culture in your target language then you've got a great incentive (and potentially a lot of embarrassing nights ahead of you)!
Just how important is pronunciation in a language? Leave me a comment below to let me know!