Has someone ever said this to you before?
“Wait a minute- you’re not from here? But you have no accent! Is one of your parents from here?”
The first time I heard a Brazilian say this to me, I played it cool on the outside, but on the inside I was ecstatic.
In the language learning journey, there’s no greater victory than having a native speaker mistake you for a local.
Since then, I’ve been complimented by native speakers for my accents in Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, French and most recently German. Even though I’ve gotten used these compliments, I still get that “hell yeah!” feeling each time I hear them.
But nailing the accent in your target language isn’t just about impressing people- there are practical benefits as well. With a good accent, you can:
- Pick up new words and expressions faster.
- Speak more fluidly.
- Understand native speakers more clearly.
Research also shows that people like you better when you speak like them.
I’ve definitely noticed this in my travels. Natives feel more at ease when they speak with me compared to other foreigners. Because I sound like them, they can let down that guard of “Wait, this guy’s a foreigner and probably won’t get it.”
As one Brazilian girl explained it to me:
“You just feel a lot more familiar to me, and I like that.”
Problem is, there hasn’t been a lot of practical resources out there for you to improve your accent. Learning what things mean in a foreign language is pretty straightforward; learning how things sound isn’t.
At least not until now…
In this post, I will break down for you 6 tried and true tricks to speak your target language with an impressive accent.
Trick #1: Master your Mouth
Most language learners know a lot about grammar, but they know very little about what their mouths are actually doing when they speak.
But if your mouth’s the one doing all the work in a foreign language, shouldn’t you at least know how the mouth works?
Learning to speak a language without knowing how your mouth works, is like learning to play guitar without knowing how your fingers work.
Most language learners don’t study anything about phonetics, and I don’t blame them. Most material out there is pretty jargony and overly-complicated.
Good news is, you don’t need to be a Phd student to benefit from phonetic training. You just need to know enough to hack the sounds of your target language.
In my free e-courses, I explain everything you need to know about the phonetics of your target language.
For now, let’s just review the basics:
- When you let air pass through your mouth freely, you are making a vowel sound (e.g. the /i/ from Spanish “Sí”)
- When you block the airflow through your mouth with your tongue, lips, or some other “articulator”, you are making a consonant sound (e.g. the /s/ from the Spanish “Sí”)
If you mispronounce a vowel sound, that means you are doing one or more of the following:
- Placing your tongue in the wrong position.
- Curling your lips the wrong way.
- Misdirecting airflow through your nose.
If you mispronounce a consonant sound, that means you are doing one or more of the following:
- Using the wrong “articulators” to block the airflow.
- Blocking the airflow the wrong way (e.g. blocking it completely when you’re supposed to block it only partially).
- Vibrating your vocal cords when you’re not supposed to, or vice versa.
People typically view an “Accent” as an abstract thing. That’s why it’s intimidating to set the goal “I want to improve my accent”.
But when you can break it all down into concrete terms, the idea of improving your accent becomes much more doable.
Now that we know “how” to improve your accent, the next tasks is figuring out “what” exactly you need to improve.
Trick #2: Seek and Destroy Your Personal Accent Blocks
Every language-learner has his own set of tongue-twister sounds when speaking his target language.
I refer to these sounds as accent blocks, and my mission is to seek and destroy them.
Since most accent blocks are related to sounds that don’t exist in your first language, the first objective in the seek and destroy mission is finding out what those sounds are.
For example, when I started learning German this last May, the very first thing I did was identify the 11 sounds that don’t exist in my native English.
Here they are:
Of this list, my personal accent block was the /ç/ sound from words like “ich” and “fertig”.
I was able to pronounce the sound in isolation, but whenever I tried to pronounce it next to another consonant sound (like in the words “bißchen” and “mädchen”), my tongue would always freeze up.
To destroy this accent block, I made of every possible consonant combination involving the /ç/ sound. Then I repeated these combos over and over again until I could comfortably pronounce each.
It was very difficult to do this at first. My tongue would trip up often and be sore by the end of a practice session.
But since the brain has an infinite capacity to learn new motor skills, I was able to master all of these sound combinations in just 2 days.
It might seem like overkill to dedicate so much energy just to get one sound right, but consider the fact that the /ç/ sound comes up all the time in German. It would have constantly frozen up my tongue in German conversations.
Instead of letting this accent block handicap my German speaking for months or even years, I decided to deal with right away with just 2 days of practice.
What are your accent blocks? How are you going to fix them?
We are creating more resources to help people seek and destroy the most common accent blocks in every language. Here’s an example of the most common vowel mistakes in Spanish:
Wanna find our your accent blocks? Sign up for our list to get access to these resources.
Then once you’ve mastered all the sounds of your target language, the next step is to string them together in natural, connected speech.
Trick #3: Ignore the Words and Listen for the Syllables
Most people think of speech as being a sequence of words, but actually it’s a sequence of syllables.
For example, listen to these two versions of the phrase “Hey what are you doing tonight?”
In the first version, I speak word-for-word and sound unnatural as a result. If you were learning English, you wouldn’t want to sound like this.
In the second version, on the other hand, I let the words flow together naturally. This is how an English learner strives to sound.
To speak a language naturally, you need to ignore the words and listen for the syllables.
The first step in learning to hear syllables is learning to count syllables. Listen to the recording below on repeat in slow motion. See if you are able to count the 8 separate syllables in your head.
Once you are able to count syllables, the next step is to transcribe each syllable into its component sounds.
Here’s that same sentence broken down into its syllables using the international phonetic alphabet. Notice how some of the words are pronounced completely different than they are in isolation.
heɪ wə ɾɚ ju du ɪn nɪ naɪʔ
When I hear a new word or phrase in a language, I try to disassemble and playback the syllables in my head like this:
People assume that I have an innate talent for hearing and mimicking, but the truth is that this is something I trained, and you can train it to.
Why would you want to develop this ability?
Because hearing and mimicking syllables is a language learning superpower. With it, you can pick up new words and expressions easier than everyone else, just by listening with your ears.
But just nailing the syllables isn’t enough to speak with an impressive accent. The final piece of the puzzle is the melody.
Trick #4: Mumble the Melody
If a phrase was a song, the syllables would be the musical notes.
Just like in a musical melody, a phrase melody is all about the way the syllables change in pitch and rhythm.
Melody is such a fundamental part of language that most of the time we don’t notice it. That’s why melody mismatch is such a major ingredient in a person’s foreign accent.
Melody mismatch is when you set the syllables of your target language to the melody of your native language.
Here’s an example of me speaking Chinese with an American melody, and English with a Chinese melody. Both should remind you of the typical foreign accents for those languages.
With so much already going on in a phrase, it can be hard to focus your hearing on just the melody.
That’s why the best way to train melody is to ignore the phonemes and mumble.
In the recording below, I listen to phrases in Italian, German and Japanese and mumble the melodies of each.
Sometimes the melody can be so different from what I’m used to that I can’t hear it at normal speed. So I’ll first try it slowed down like this.
Wanna give it a try? Here are 3 more examples for you to practice with. For each one I do a slow version and a normal speed version.
If you think this training is useful, sign up for our mailing list and we will be sending out ear and mouth training exercises like these periodically.
Trick #5: Act like a Child
Mumbling strange melodies and making strange sounds with your mouth can feel a bit…well…strange.
This is because we base much of our identity in the way we sound.
If you’re from Boston, you might self-identify with your Boston twang. If your from Paris, you might self identify with your Parisian cadence.
So a Bostonian might feel “not himself” if he all of a sudden started to speak with the Parisian cadence. And the Parisian might feel “not herself” if she all of a sudden had to adopt the Boston twang.
There is always a psychological barrier to speaking a foreign language with a good accent.
Language learning forces you to redefine your concept of “self” and stretch the boundaries of your personality. That’s why it helps to return to the time when your identity was looser- childhood.
When you were a child, you had no real sense of “self.” This meant that you could freely try new things and mimic the people around you without ever stopping to think “Wait I can’t do this…this is not my style!”
Short of time machines and magic spells, there’s no way to truly return to your childhood self. You can, however, nurture child-like habits.
When speaking your target language, try to do more of the following:
Ask a lot of questions
Every kid has that “why?” period that drives their parents crazy. They’re in this amazing new world and they now have the tool of the “question” to learn everything they can about it.
When learning a language, try to drive the natives crazy by asking them “what’s that?” and “how do you say that?” all the time.
Asking questions re-activates your natural curiosity and makes you more comfortable with your ignorance.
Mimic all the time:
Another thing kids do to irritate their parents is mimic the music and speech of their environment. They do this because sound is intrinsically interesting to our brains.
When you watch TV in your target language or walk down the street in the target language country, try to mimic everyone you hear. This simple practice will rapidly accelerate accent acquisition.
Play with the sounds:
The easiest way to make a child laugh is to speak in a goofy voice. Again, there is something irresistibly entertaining about strange sounds.
When speaking your foreign language, have fun with mimicry’s close cousin- mockery. Exaggerating the musicality of the language helps loosen up your identity and get more into the spirit.
Just make sure your imitations come from a place of respectful playfulness, and native speakers will be more likely to laugh than feel insulted.
And if anyone ever accuses you of “Acting like a child,” smile and say “Thanks!”
Tip #6: Find an Accent Role Model
Once you put yourself in that child-like state, your identity will be loosened up and ready to evolve. Now the question becomes: “which new identity will you evolve into?”
To guide your accent/identity evolution, find an “accent role model” in your target language and try to mimic that person as closely as possible.
Your role model should be a native speaker with a similar voice quality to your own. The person should also be someone you consider to be “cool” or likable in your eyes (and ears).
The person can be either a friend you spend a lot of time with, or a celebrity you can watch a lot of videos of on youtube. Or it can be a combination of both.
For example, when I learned Portuguese I always kept Seu Jorge’s voice in my head because he just sounded so cool, but I also tried to mimic my friend Luis, since I spent so much time with him.
The point is that, whenever you speak the language, you should try to “get into the character” of that role model.
Do this enough, and your foreign language persona will eventually become a part of you.
Whenever you speak your target language, you can slip into this version of yourself and speak fluidly with an authentic accent.
You’ll finally fall into the “flow” of the language and find yourself picking up words and expressions more easily.
With this new shade of your personality, you’ll be able to connect better with the locals and get more out of your travels and cultural exchanges.
Then one day, someone might mistake you for one of the locals, and it will be glorious.