Your accent isn’t important. Your pronunciation is.

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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:

  1. 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’.
  2. 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.

Hey 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’m Australian!

I’ve got my own blog on Chinese over at http://chinese-breeze.com

Dan

<Audio8.m4a>

Hi Daniel,

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?

Ramses

Hey Daniel,

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.

Ramses

 

 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!

Author: Dan

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  • Hi Dan,
    I totally agree. I’m currently also learning Chinese, and my friends will tell me that my accent is horrible, however I tell them to screw off because my ‘accent’ doesn’t interfere with other people’s understanding of what I’m trying to say. I can understand people with different/strange accents on their English just fine. Chinese people obviously notice my accent, but they can still understand what I am saying, which is the only thing that matters, right?

    • Hi Josh, thanks for your comment. And of course, you’re spot on. Although I would argue that a super strong accent may in some instances have other consequences, for example creating the impression that the speaker doesn’t speak well and therefore won’t understand what they’re saying, in general (and especially in the beginner and intermediate stages) you are much better off putting that time into actually getting better at the language and expanding your vocabularly, etc, rather than trying to achieve a perfect accent. How long have you been learning Chinese?

      • I’ve been learning since I first moved to China in ’08. This, of course, was when I was 11, so the first 3 years or so I wasn’t too serious. Since my family moved back to the States two years ago I’ve been studying harder, and presently I am studying more than I ever have in the past.

        • Ah, great! Where abouts did you live? Would you say you are fluent in the language, or not yet?

          I’ll be over in Nanjing from January next year.

          • I lived in Shanghai. I would not say that I am fluent. My vocabulary is simply too small. I am really focusing on building up my vocabulary and hoping to live in China during college to put the ‘finishing touches’ on my language skills. My goal is to be able to watch a Chinese television show and understand what is going on.

            Nanjing is a great city, compared to other Chinese metropolises it really has a ‘small-town’ feel, despite being a city of 7 million people. Sorry for taking so long to reply.

  • Hi Dan. I must say I disagree with you on this! Actually, a lot of people focus a lot on pronunciation, but they totally forget about the “flow” of the language (what you call “accent”). In other words, people focus on the individual pronunciation of words (in English, this would be getting every single stressed syllable right, whereas in Chinese it would be getting every tone right), but they forget about the “music” of the language, i.e. where to put the pauses, where to rise and fall the intonation, etc.

    I think that getting the flow right is very important, and I think having it wrong does interfere with how natives can understand you. For example, a language such as Korean has a really, really different flow from English. It is much more, shall I say, broken down in chunks with short, quick pauses between clauses (kind of hard to explain), whereas English is much more flowing in a way. I’ve heard a lot of people speaking Korean with a relatively decent pronunciation, except that they don’t seem to be speaking Korean but rather English or another foreign language because the flow is way off.

    I think this ultimately stems from a lack of exposure to the language (usually a lack of listening to authentic material). I also have many students who are learning English and some of them have, I must say, near perfect pronunciation. But when it comes to actually stringing whole sentences together, they just can’t get it. Some also try to “overdo” their pronunciation, and in English it’s especially easy to end up with some annoying kind of accent. Anyway, that’s my 2 cents, curious to see what you think about that!

    Sam

    • Hey Sam, thanks for the comment.

      Yeah, that’s a difficult one actually. I think that the rhythm or flow of a language can fit into both the accent and pronunciation categories depending on how bad it is. Where a lack of rhythm in the language makes the speaker hard to listen to, or makes it hard to maintain concentration, then I think it could be classified as a pronunciation problem. If your rhythm is slightly off, but it doesn’t impinge upon your ability to communicate at all, then I think it is an accent problem in the sense that the only disadvantage it has is that you will easily be identified as a non-native – in this instance, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about too much.

      I still think that your accent isn’t something you should worry about too much, firstly, because if you get enough input it will improve naturally, and secondly, because it doesn’t really matter if you have one, assuming it doesn’t affect your ability to be understood!

    • I find that the flow of the language actually is not very important. As someone who has lived with non-native English speakers and held many conversations with them, I find that an accent, while annoying, does not impede my comprehension of their words. However, a friend of mine today was trying to tell me about ‘duck’ meat, but ended up saying ‘dog’ meat over and over, which was much more disruptive to the conversation than his Asian accent.