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Right, let's get down to business! If you want to sound like a local, you need to work on many things and your foreigner accent is one of them. When I speak in English I've got a lovely wee (slightly watered down) Irish accent. However, when trying to speak my first foreign language I had an English (or more precisely, an anglophone) accent, which may not be particularly lovely.
This is no longer true for me. Now, no matter what language I take on, even in the beginning stages, people rarely take me as a native English speaker. I still have a foreign accent, but they can't place it and make guesses of what country I may be from, sticking to the west simply because of my appearance.
For me this is a huge improvement and I love to have them keep guessing until I reveal the truth. The best part of all, is that it means they are much less likely to speak English with me, which is extremely important for my own learning process.
There are mistakes that many native English speakers make that will give them away, so I'd like to talk about that today. If you think that “old dogs can't learn new tricks” and you'll never be able to lose your accent, try to keep an open mind because some of us don't give up so easy 😉
The main culprit: pronunciation
Your accent is actually made up of so many different parts that all add up. You have word stress, sentence intonation, rhythm, the expressions you use and so much more. And each dialect has its own accent and peculiarities. Each of these deserves attention and work. But for our purposes, one of the most obvious ways you can give away having a “strong” anglophone accent, is by your mispronunciation of the foreign language.
You would think this would be easy enough, because most languages (unlike English) are phonetic (i.e. pronounced exactly how they are written, with very few exceptions). Unfortunately for learners, these pronunciations are sometimes not the same as in English, and some don't resemble any sound in English.
The French u, Czech ř, the guttural sound (e.g. “j” in European Spanish), and many others, require a lot of practise. But they can be learned! In fact, each of these sounds in themselves do not exist in plenty of other languages. An Italian for example may have just as much trouble learning them as you would.
Any of these sounds can be practised and you can learn them. However, not mastering them immediately will not necessarily give you away as an English speaker.
When learning a particular language you may have to change how you pronounce certain consonants, making them longer or moving your tongue to a different position in your mouth etc., but there is one single sound that is highly associated with English speakers that reveal your “secret” immediately and you should work hardest on it if you don't want it known immediately that English is your native language…
The sound made by pronouncing this letter is what gives us away quicker than anything else. To many foreigners this sound resembles a lazy dog howling. I haven't come across any other language (yet) that uses R the way we do in English. Other consonant sounds aren't that far off, e.g. Spanish b tends to be formed slightly closer to the mouth, but the difference is minor, so speaking with an English b initially isn't that bad. However, an English r is nothing like it is for most languages that use the Latin alphabet.
I realized this early in my Spanish studies and worked hard to make sure I could roll my r. It wasn't actually that hard! There are plenty of ways of learning how to pronounce that rolled r (which comes up in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Slavic languages and even helped me when trying to say words correctly in Hindi in India this year). You have to stop yourself from using the English “r” entirely. The rolled r actually resembles our l (“el”) more than it does our r.
Other languages, like French, make it more guttural, so the sound comes from about same position in your throat as it does for the letter g. For both the rolled and guttural r, I basically got a native with a lot of patience to explain mouth and throat positions to me and listen to me for a lot of time until I got it down pretty well.
I know I still have to perfect my French r for example, but it's not far off the actual sound. Practise makes perfect, and I intend to get it down correctly in each language I speak, and soon! There are lots of online resources that explain it technically that can help a lot, if you are trying too.
Consonant vowel relationships
Something else that is typically English (however it does exist somewhat in other languages) is whether the language is consonant or vowel based.
If my mission in Brazil was to be confused for a native (rather than a Brazilian), I could actually pack my bags and go home right now, because strangely enough a lot of Brazilians keep asking me if I'm Portuguese!! I've spent a total of 2 hours in Portugal (due to a flight transfer) so I'd love to claim that this is down to my own amazing talents, but it's actually due to a very simple misunderstanding and only occurs with Brazilians who are just vaguely familiar with the Portuguese accent. The common trait? I am not pronouncing my vowels clearly enough.
When I ask French, Italian, Spanish etc. speakers they almost always mention this as a clear indication of me not being native. In English, we seem to love our consonants. The vowels take a back-seat as we gleam in pride about how pretty and clear our consonants are.
We'll gladly throw together several of them and muffle out the vowels as a mere separation. One example is the word “comfortable”, which we can say as “komftuh-bull” or “kamft-bill” or anything similar really, depending on your dialect or general mood! Where's that second o?? Why isn't the “a” pronounced as aah? Nobody really cares because each of the consonants is present and accounted for.
This is not the case in most Latin languages. The Portuguese translation, confortável needs each syllable to be pronounced very clearly, not just the stressed one. There needs to be no doubt about which vowel is in that syllable; I need to say “Kong-For-TAH-Veoo” (more or less), nice and clearly.
Despite devoting the last 7 years almost entirely to Latin languages, I am still having trouble with this and will need to get over it soon if I want to succeed in this current mission. Doing so will also hugely help me with my other languages. I can do it no problem when you ask me to, but speaking quickly I tend to “eat” my syllables and mumble non-stressed vowels. This is because of the English language influence and I hear other English speakers do it all the time in foreign languages. We need to stop doing this!! Who's with me?! 🙂
On the plus side, as you may have guessed, in European Portuguese you tend to eat your vowels more than in Brazilian Portuguese (why they sometimes think I'm Portuguese, despite the many other parts of that dialect I don't emulate at all, and I'm sure the Portuguese would definitely beg to differ about me sounding anything like them!!).
Also, Slavic languages like Czech go a step further and can have entire sentences without any vowels, so I didn't have this lazy-vowel problem in Prague and could actually fool Czechs for an entire sentence or two to thinking that I was a local (if I picked the right sentence of course!)
Old dogs can learn new tricks, and I intend to learn this one 😉 With time, your accent can “naturally” diminish, however this doesn't happen organically for a lot of people. Sometimes you need to be more active and solve issues like this directly and simply practise them repeatedly until you get it right.
Interested how I do it exactly? Check out Fluent in 3 Months Premium – the essential guide to speak another language fluently in the shortest possible time.