Why Do Some English Learners Have a Heavy Accent and Some Sound Like Natives?
You would never guess some people weren’t born native English speakers. They have just the perfect English accent. Then you discover that they learned English as an adult! I’ve met people like this. Have you? It’s pretty amazing and it’s true. And it’s something you can also learn to do.
Now, on the other hand, we all know people who have learned English as a second language, and who have studied and applied the language for years, and still can’t seem to get rid of their super heavy accent from their native language. This is all too common as well. And this is something you want to veer away from.
So, what gives? Why is it that some people have great accents and some have heavy, hard to understand accents? Is it because one person is smarter than the other?
NO! Definitely not! Believe me, you are smart enough to have a perfect accent. The problem here is not intelligence. The problem is the way a person thinks about sounds and language.
So this is the one major thing that affects how natural-sounding your spoken English is. It’s called first language interference, or the ability to focus on sounds and not letters. The reason why some people have a heavy accent, and why they can’t get rid of it even after a deep immersion of the English language, is because they let their first language affect their second language too much.
In this lesson, we’ll talk about how you can detach yourself from your first language
How to Get a Perfect Native English Accent
The reason why some people have a heavy accent in English is because they are still using the rules from their first language.
You see, in your native language, X = Y. But in American English, X = Z!
You must keep in mind that you can not always carry the rules of pronunciation from your first language to English. Okay, maybe sometimes you can on a case-to-case basis, but as a best practice, always start with a clean slate and learn English from the basics…including one of its most important components, the accent you use when you speak.
For example, an R in English sounds like “er” but an R in Portuguese could be like “h” in English and an R in Japanese could be like “l” in English.
You can get a perfect Native English Accent when you let go of the rules from your native language and learn English with an open mind. You have to learn the sounds each letter makes just like a baby does — from zero!
Here are three suggestions for doing that:
Immersion – Listen to a Lot of Native English
Whenever you can, always play English media movies, music, TV, and so on. and have English language media going on in the background even if you’re doing something else. Your brain is amazing! It will start to recognize patterns in English pronunciation and the sounds of English will become more familiar to you.
So, whatever you are doing, always have something to listen to in English.
Let Go of Your First Language Rules
Next, you have to forget about the pronunciation rules in your first language. Be totally ready for new sounds that you’ve never been aware of before. Listen carefully and don’t let your first, native language interfere. Don’t assume that English spellings will make sense at first! Remember that you can keep your native language, but make room for new rules for letters and sounds in English!
Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
The International Phonetic Alphabet is an extremely useful tool for quickly identifying the true, correct pronunciation of any word in any language.
So, you’re probably wondering why your English teacher didn’t make you learn it, and why I don’t talk about it much either. Well, the bad news is that it is really challenging and takes time to learn. Even though it is a powerful tool for language learning, I recommend the lazy person’s version. Take notes about how you think new words should be spelled based on how they sound to you. When you write down new words (you are writing down new words in a vocabulary journal, right?!), write down the way they sound, not just the way they are spelled. This will help you to remember how to say them later.
Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Some More Tips to Improve Your English Accent
Here are some additional tips on how you can practice and perfect your English accent. So that you’ll sound like a native English speaker in no time.
- Look at yourself in the mirror. And pay attention to how your lips and mouth move. Even the tiniest movements can make a big impact on how you sound. Watch how other people look like when they speak and they sound like a native English speaker. Better yet, observe native and natural English speakers and watch how their mouth and lips move. You can also go online and check out guides on the proper ways to move and position your mouth when speaking.
- Pay close attention to your tongue too. The difference between saying “rock” and “lock”, or “rice” and “lice” is in the movement of your tongue.
- To make the “L” sound, your tongue must touch the back of your front teeth and the top of your mouth behind your front teeth. Go ahead and try it now. Say a few words that start with “L”. You’ll understand what I’m talking about.
- On the other hand, to make the “R” sound, your tongue should not touch the top of your mouth. What you should do is to position your tongue back to the middle of your mouth, similar to its resting position. As you say the sound and roll your “R”, your lips should be a little rounded. Try it there on your end.
- Some native languages don’t have a “TH” sound. To make this, put your tongue between your top and bottom teeth. Just let your tongue should stick out a little between your teeth. And then gently push air out of your mouth, let some air escape between your tongue and teeth because that’s what makes the sound. Go ahead and practice this sound too.
- You can also practice with a buddy. Or if you can’t find one, record yourself as you practice speaking in English. You’ll catch a lot of your blind spots either way. And it’ll be faster for you to detect how to help yourself sound more natural. Your buddy can give you inputs on how you’re doing when you’re speaking. And your video recording of yourself can show you your movement and it can show you if you are talking too fast, or if you can be understood as you speak your words.
I’m confident that when you get to apply these tips and techniques, your English skills will further exhibit itself in your accent and the way you speak. So, I encourage you to keep practicing, keep using English everyday, and don’t ever stop learning!
Learn more about how to improve your pronunciation in English with this vlog lesson on the 100 Most Common Words in English and how to Pronounce Them