It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!
I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.
This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).
Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!
You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers!
Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!
English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.
Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.
The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:
- Not using the Schwa sound
American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!
Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.
Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.
Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!
Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).
So what you need to do is two things:
- Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
- Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)
- English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.
When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.
In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.
But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.
American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!
Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.
I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.
Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.
Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.
What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.
- Not Pronouncing the R correctly
And this is especially a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)
One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.
Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).
For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.
- Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.
Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)
This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.
Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)
Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).
You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.
These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.
And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.
Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.
Some examples of these ticks:
- Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
- Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
- Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
- Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)
This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.
- Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language
The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!
Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.
Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.
As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.
You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.
As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.
To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.
So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.
Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.
Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.
BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!
I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)
But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.
You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.
As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.
This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.
Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.
Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).
It. Is. Possible!
That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!
Have fun on the journey!