by Hongyu Chen
Here is one of the most commonly asked questions regarding pronunciation:
“Is it possible for someone learn a new language after childhood, and still sound native?”
This question is widely debated everywhere from Quora to Internet forums, and is an heated topic of academic research. With tons of accent reduction companies out there claiming that they know the solution, how do we sort out fact from fiction?
Some of the facts are counter-intuitive. Did you know that the length of time that you live in a country doesn’t affect your accent very much at all? Neither, experts say, does gender or self-estimated ability.
So what, if anything, does actually help you reduce an accent in another language?
This guide breaks down everything you need to know about learning to speak language as an adult. It isn’t meant to be language-specific, as plenty of linguistic research suggests similar patterns across different languages and accents.
Part 1: Motivation and Soul Searching
Before delving into the science of accent reduction, you must ask yourself:
“Why am I trying to sound native?”
In certain professions, for example being a news anchor, you absolutely need to develop a perfect accent. These situations tend to be rare. In order to do your job, you need to sound 100% identical to a native speaker. Needless to say, this is a high standard.
Most people don’t fall into this category. If you don’t happen to find yourself in one of these situations, there are important realizations that follow:
- Accent reduction exists on a spectrum. There isn’t this mythical binary of “native speaker” and “complete gibberish”. Rather, there are people that have such strong accents that it interferes with communication with certain people, and others that are understood nearly all the time with only a few mispronounced words. One of the most important parts of accent reduction is to assess where you are in the spectrum and have clear goals and expectations on where you need to be.
- You just need to be good enough. That is, what do I expect to get out of speaking more clearly? Do I need to assimilate into a new living situation? Does my new job require that I speak better? Or is it a matter of self-driven motivation? Whatever it is, find it on the spectrum. In any case, for 99% of people, you don’t need to be confused for a native speaker.
This also depends on your niche. If all you need is to be able to communicate in a business setting in Colombia, maybe all you need is to be able to say a list of business phrases well. You may not need to delve into the intricacies of learning Spanish. If all you need is to be able to write for a Parisian newspaper, it might not be worth investigating your accent issues in French.
Once you realize that a whopping 96% of English speakers do not have a native accent, maybe stressing out about the perfect schwa pronunciation and losing sleep over it is not the way to go. But if you for some reason absolutely need to be a radio spokesperson in China, maybe you should invest in learning the ins and outs of a perfect Chinese accent.
Part 2: Best Case Scenarios and What Experts Say
You pick up the ability to tell when someone has an accent as a child. This ability never leaves you, and for the most part, you can tell when someone is not native. But can you trick someone into believing you are native when you really are not? Let’s explore the best case scenario.
First, there are specific corrections you can make to make yourself sound native. With computer analysis, there are specific things and patterns that anyone can take to make non-native speech sound exactly like native speech. With a computer algorithm to morph your voice, and nothing more, you can sound more native.
So far so good. But that doesn’t actually matter if you can’t actually produce those changes. This is where a mixture of nature and nurture comes in.
Nature: What you’re dealt at birth is your brain and vocal box, which allows you to produce speech. Both play a big role in development. What’s relevant here is the development of Dysprosody, or simply “when you can’t say certain sounds”. You’re born with the ability to produce certain sounds, and as you grow older, you lose the ability to physically produce some of those sounds. Exactly which sounds you can or cannot produce is affected here. In fact, there are rare disorders that will artificially give people accents independent of learning environment. Realizing that nature plays a role is important in knowing your individual limitations and capabilities.
Nurture: Although your genes are important, you shouldn’t resign to thinking that everything is decided for you. What you do in life matters a lot for which accent you develop. Unfortunately for most language speakers, experts say that babies show high affinity towards the first language that they hear spoken. The biggest determinant of accent is the age of acquisition, and many other factors such as gender, language learning ability, and even length of residence play only minor roles in the eventual role that nurture plays in accent development.
Given that it’s nearly impossible to change your nature, and most of nurture is developed during your childhood, it is easy to think that you can’t change much. While there is an element of truth to this, the next section explains what you can do.
Part 3: Your Action Plan
What you do as an adult makes a difference. Even though someone who has put in no effort can have a perfect accent simply by having normal genes and having grown up in a country, it doesn’t mean that you can’t come close to that level with hard work and dedication.
We’ve talked earlier (twice!) that even things like gender, length of residence, and self-reported learning ability are not great predictors of whether someone can speak a language well. There are plenty of examples of immigrants living in a foreign country for their whole life, and never improving their accent. So if these innate things aren’t the solution, what is?
Fortunately, all of these things are in your control.
Approach: It has been shown countless times that your approach to learning a language is a big determinant in how well you can speak it. If you make pronunciation a priority from day 1, that avoids the development of bad habits. Adults are much worse than children at mimicking pronunciation, which means that bad pronunciation is bound to happen. These habits, once developed, are very difficult to overcome.
Conscious Effort: The reason why age of residence doesn’t help you speak a language better or reduce your accent is because you aren’t actually fixing your mistakes. If anything, you are making the problem worse by reinforcing bad pronunciation. A bad approach coupled with a lack of conscious effort to fix mistakes leads to a reinforcement of incomprehensible speech. Conversely, if you make a conscious effort to fix your mistakes from the start of your journey, that makes your life considerably easier.
Feedback Loop: This forms the crux of learning and is a logical next step. You need to be able to identify your mistakes in your initial approach, in order to be able to make a conscious effort to fix your mistakes. Being able to quickly identify what went wrong is important, because length of habits, both good and bad, is an important determinant for its stickiness.
Growth Mindset: It is tough knowing that quite a bit of learning a new language is out of your control. Some of us may never be confused for a native. Yet others may have a shot with enough hard work and dedication. Your mindset is important in bouncing back from failures. Having the healthy attitude that your hard work will pay off in the long run is important in achieving your desired level of fluency and accent reduction.
Part 4: What Works and What Doesn’t
The tried and true method is private coaching and immersion. If you had unlimited money and time, and someone told you absolutely needed to become accent-free, this is the ideal scenario. Imagine a native speaker following you around, correcting every single mistake you make until you say it correctly. This person would also be a trained linguist, to coach you on exactly how to produce such sounds. Finally, you would spend every waking hour practicing your new language. It doesn’t get any better than this.
For most people, this is not an option because of limited resources. Private tutoring is prohibitively expensive for most, and most people do online tutoring no more than on a weekly basis. But there are some important takeaways.
- Be clear about correcting your pronunciation. Many inexperienced coaches will be embarrassed to correct your pronunciation mistakes because they are harder to hear. Instead, they will focus on grammar mistakes, which are easier to pick up. Fixing your grammar, while important, is tangential to your pronunciation.
- Keep a high bar. Say clearly that you don’t mind the same correction multiple times if you keep mispronouncing something. If you say something correctly, and later mispronounce it, be sure that your coach picks up on it.
The important takeaway is that not all tutors are equal for pronunciation.
The same goes for software resources on the Internet. However, be careful in what you pick. For improving speaking, you need to pick something that provides adequate feedback, conscious effort, and is a sound approach.
Speechling, for example, is a website that allows you to get unlimited feedback on your pronunciation, creating both feedback loops and an immersion environment on a huge collection of sentences. The same idea, though changed slightly, can produce significantly less impressive results. For instance, Glossika has a large collection of sentences but has a methodology that encourages reciting and mimicking without feedback. For the vast majority of adults, they recite sentences over and over again, reinforcing bad habits unknowingly over time.
While both resources are good for practicing vocabulary and grammar, they are not identical in practicing pronunciation.
The same goes with language classes. Are you attending a language class where students are actively encouraged to correct one another and split up into small groups where speaking is required? Or is it a lecture class where a student is occasionally called upon and gets 20 seconds of airtime at best? Again, both are likely equally good candidates for learning vocabulary and grammar, but not so for pronunciation.
Part 5: Conclusion
It goes without saying that is tremendously difficult learning a new language. While research clearly shows a lot of it is beyond your control, the good news is that what you do actually can matter a lot.
If having a good pronunciation is important to you, the big positive takeaways are that:
- You are in control for a big part of the journey.
- Hard work and determination matter for having a good pronunciation.
- Your approach, feedback, effort, and mindset are much more important than things commonly believed to matter a lot in language acquisition, like length of residence.
So back to the opening question. Will you ever be confused for a native speaker? Depending on your genes and upbringing, the answer may depend. But if you don’t have the right approach and mindset, probably not. Make the conscious effort to go from where you are to where you want to be in your language learning journey, and don’t look back.