Your accent isn’t important. Your pronunciation is.
The majority of hard-core, nerdy, nitty-picky language blogs on the net promote having an authentic-sounding or ‘native’ accent as being the ‘holy grail’ of language learning. I’m looking at you, Ramses.
I’m not saying having a decent accent isn’t important, or that your accent isn’t worth working on, but it definitely isn’t as important as many of these other language enthusiasts make it out to be. To clarify, the distinction I draw between an ‘accent’ and ‘pronunciation’ is as follows:
- Your pronunciation is your ability to pronounce words in a way that makes them intelligible to other speakers of the language. One can have the strongest accent possible, but as long as they are understood, they will usually be pronouncing things properly. An example of incorrect pronunciation would be pronouncing ‘down’ as ‘dawn’.
- Your accent includes things like your intonation and rhythm of speech. It is anything that makes you sound foreign. The classic ‘accent trap’ is pronouncing things exactly like you would in your native language, rather than actually listening to the way they are pronounced in the language you’re learning, and imitating it.
So, as you can see, having good pronunciation is necessary for being understood. Your accent, however, has little bearing on you being understood. You can have the biggest French (or whatever) accent, and people will still understand.
People like Ramses are extremely proud of their ‘native’ accents in the second-languages they speak (in his case, Spanish). And rightly so. It’s an impressive feat. However, I think putting too much emphasis on its importance is actually doing language learners a disservice, as it tends to scare them off and instill in them a feeling of helplessness. Ironically, I’m currently in the process of writing a guest post on his new blog, The Language Dojo, about how to acquire a native like accent.
If you’re really that intent on pretending to be a native, and on impressing people with your impressive language abilities, then you should probably reconsider your motivation for learning another language. You have to be intrinsically motivated to learn a language, for more profound reasons than mere bragging rights, in order to learn it successfully.
He says that you should be working on your accent, and trying to achieve a native-sounding one, from the get-go. Otherwise, he says, you’ll be learning bad habits that are hard to get out of. I actually have a completely opposite point of view about the matter.
I was fluent in French before I started developing anything near to a native accent!
As many of my readers will know, when I was 15 I spent 5 months in France living with a host family in order to learn French.
I came back with a relatively basic level of fluency (mainly due to my terribly inefficient learning methods) and, dare I say it, a shocking accent. I can even prove it! I still have videos on my computer of me speaking French shortly after returning, and they are pretty cringeworthy. And today, well, have a look at this copy of my emails to and from Ramses.
In response to your post about accents, I’ve decided to send you a short video clip showing my accent in French. Most people can’t tell where I’m from (although a lot think I’m Quebecois but have spent a lot of time in France) and a lot of French people think I’m French.
I’ve got my own blog on Chinese over at http://chinese-breeze.com
Wow! My French is very rusty and by no means I speak it fluently, but this sounds great! I’m sending this over to Matt, I’m very curious of what he thinks of your accent (not to judge you or anything, but to share with him what fellow language learners achieve).
What did you do to improve your accent?
I already got a response from Matt:
“Holy shit, he’s awesome. Get him to write a guest article about pronunciation practice, I’m curious what he did.”
I guess he’s impressed! Haha. So now you’ve got two people interested in what you did. Would you like to elaborate? Maybe in the form of a guest article? That would be awesome, and I would make sure several links to your blog will be included.
I’m not putting that in this post to show off, or anything. I’m using it as evidence that accents aren’t as important as some people make them out to be. I feel that as long as you do enough listening practice, your ear will naturally attune itself to the sounds of the language you’re learning and you will have a decent accent without much extra effort. Once you’re at an intermediate or advanced level, you can focus on individual sounds that you have trouble with and slowly reduce your accent.
Also, in some situations, having an accent (but speaking well) is actually an advantage. I think it is impossible to speak a second-language 100% perfectly, every time. You’re going to make mistakes now and then. If your accent is native-like, then you will just sound uneducated or unintelligent when you make those inevitable mistakes, whereas, if you have a slight accent, but speak incredibly well, you are likely to portray the opposite image – you will seem intelligent and educated, having taken the time to learn a second language to such a high level.
So, there you go!
What I want you all to remember, is that it is silly to stress too much about your accent. As long as you’re understood easily, then I can’t see a problem. Eventually, it’s something you’d probably want to work on, however you’re better off spending that time actually getting better at speaking the language until you’re at an advanced level!
I know a lot of people have different views on this topic, so if you’d like to share yours, feel free to leave a comment below!