How Do Spies Hide Their Accent?
Want to know how to improve your accent in a new language?
In 2010, eleven people blew the minds of their friends and neighbours. Their arrests by the United States government revealed that they weren’t simply “normal” Americans, living the suburban dream.
It turned out that they were intelligence agents, collecting information to send back to their native country of Russia.
Many of them had gone undetected for years. How on earth had they achieved this?
Put simply, they blended in. They looked, acted and sounded like any other American living in the United States. They mimicked the local culture.
These spies achieved something that many language learners struggle with – they mastered an accent to the point where they were indistinguishable from native speakers.
How Exactly Do Spies Hide Their Accents?
An intelligence agent who had lived undercover in the United States for over 20 years gave an interview describing his experience after he’d returned to Russia. In the interview, he was asked how he was able to fool those around him for such an extended period of time.
His answer was quite simple – he’d stopped speaking Russian and conversed entirely in English or French, no matter where he was at the time.
“ You cannot use your native tongue, even at home; you have to be a control freak. That said, after working for several years, it comes naturally to you. You even have dreams in other languages.” – Andrei Bezrukov
How do spies get to this point? This is information that countries such as the United States and Russia keep very close to their chests – but from general understanding, it’s due to hours upon hours of study in intensive training programmes. Intelligence agents are made to concentrate solely on their pursuit of mastering both the language and accent of the country they plan to infiltrate.
Spies-in-training spend up to eight hours a day in language classes, along with at least a couple of hours of homework per night. It’s a hard slog that pays off when in six months’ time you may not be able to single them out as anything other than native speakers.
Unfortunately, not all of us have the same amount of time on our hands.
So what do you do if you want to master the accent of a foreign country, but your resources aren’t exactly in the same ballpark as those of the Russian or US military?
I have a few ideas for how to improve your accent. Read on to find out more.
How to Improve Your Pronunciation and Accent (5 Steps)
Step 1: Find a Native Speaker of Your Target Language
Ideally, you’d want to find native speakers of your target language – then talk to them!
You’ll hear the inflections and tones of the language and your ear will start honing itself to these sounds. Also, it never hurts to have someone on hand to help you when you get stuck on a pronunciation or are having trouble rolling your ‘r’s.
However, sometimes this is easier said than done – particularly if you don’t live in a big city, or you’re learning a less common language.
What can you do if this is you?
One of my favourite resources for practising with native speakers is italki. italki helps you find language teachers to Skype with online.
It’s helped me out in several situations. I used italki to learn Mandarin Chinese when I was living in Taipei, because it turned out to be a much cheaper option than having lessons in person.
There have even been times where I learned a language before travelling, such as when I learned Egyptian Arabic while living in Brazil. I was fluent to the point where I could walk into the Egyptian Embassy in Brasília and apply for my visa – speaking entirely in Egyptian Arabic. Skype lessons were key in achieving this conversational fluency.
What if you’re learning a language that’s not spoken by many people? I’ve heard about people learning less common languages who have had issues trying to track down a native speaker.
Here’s an option: extend your search from native speakers to fellow learners who are at a more advanced level than you. You can use the language option on italki and untick “native speaker”.
Chatting with native speakers online isn’t the only thing you can do to improve your accent…
Step 2: Get Cultural Immersion with Radio and TV
Television is brilliant for language learning – if you approach it the right way. You can find many foreign shows (with subtitles!) online. Movies are handy too – as long as you remember there is a right and wrong way to use films to learn a language.
Watching the news is particularly valuable. News anchors and journalists enunciate clearly and use correct pronunciation. Pro-tip: watch news shows on YouTube, and slow the videos down using the video settings button. You can slow videos to quarter speed.
Similarly, radio is a helpful resource, particularly for learning on the go. The radio app TuneIn has radio stations in most major languages. Likewise, Spotify has an excellent selection of music from around the world.
Through the use of these resources, you’ll be tuning your ear to the inflections, tones and general pronunciations of your target language, which will in turn make it easier for you to master the accent.
REMEMBER: watching TV or listening to the radio is not an excuse to switch off your brain. Passive learning on its own does not work! You need to be actively studying what you are watching/listening to. Radio and TV should should be just one tool in your language learning toolbox – it’s difficult to maintain any progress if you rely on them alone.
Step 3: Stick Post-Its Around Your Home
A great way to improve your pronunciation of words is with forced repetition.
Try this: label some key items around the house with Post-Its. Don’t forget to add the articles before the words if you’re learning a language that uses them, such as un/une/des in French. This will help you avoid confusion in the future.
Beneath the name of the item, write how it’s pronounced.
Soon enough, you’ll be able to remember both the word and the pronunciation.
Step 4: Record Yourself Speaking
Recording yourself – and listening back to it – is one of the most powerful hacks I know for improving pronunciation.
Does the idea of it make you cringe? You’re not alone. Many people experience waves of revulsion whenever they hear an audio clip of themselves talking. Over time you’ll get used to it – especially once you’ve realised how powerful it is.
Use the voice recorder on your phone to record yourself saying phrases or words you’ve had difficulty pronouncing. Then, get ruthless! Listen to yourself as though you were listening to someone else. Start with being kind. Celebrate the small victories – such as mastering a word you have previously had issues with. Then, pick apart the mistakes. Identify which words need improvement and go to town on them!
What if you’re unsure if you’ve got the correct pronunciation? Find a native speaker, and ask them for feedback on your recording. You could even ask them to record a word that you’re having difficulty with, for reference.
Step 5: Check Out the Mimic Method
My friend and fellow polyglot Idahosa Ness has spent years developing a system that has helped thousands of people lose their strong “foreign” accent when speaking a new language.
Mimic Method takes you through the component sounds of a language: the rhythm, the beat, the musicality and individual sounds, and how they all tie together. And it shows you exactly what steps to take to develop a more authentic accent.
The Mimic Method offers accent training for:
Click the language you want to learn to find out more about how to improve your accent and pronunciation when you’re speaking.
You Don’t Have to Be a Spy to Master An Accent
Don’t worry – you can breathe a sigh of relief! You don’t need to go through intensive spy training to master a foreign accent.
You just need to practise and tune your ear to the language you’re learning. Don’t be scared to seek assistance from those more advanced in the language than you.