Do you have a grasp on English grammar, a decent vocabulary, but have not made that step to fluency? Do you feel as if you will never achieve the ability to speak like (or similar) to a native? Getting rid of your accent and sounding more like a native is the key to fully being understood. There is a very social aspect to language that is important not to ignore. While it may seem cool to know one or more foreign languages, the goal of language is communication. Sounding more like a native enables smooth conversation where the listener is not straining to make sense of your words.
An accent requires a deeper knowledge of not only the grammar and rules but also of the customs and culture. There is a famous Czech proverb: “You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.” It is no coincidence that they say that for every language you speak you are another person. At times speaking a foreign language can feel more like a performance. In fact, thinking of it in this way helps in overcoming fears, shyness and self-imposed boundaries. Integrating artistic disciplines such as music and theatre along with some basic language learning concepts drastically improves the way you speak ultimately making your words more easily understood. In the end, language is more about communicating effectively—practice is more important than the theory for all practical purposes.
The most important skill to master to improve your accent is listening. Careful listening helps get the language “in your ear.” It also helps in distinguishing all the phonemes, or distinct sound units. Before speaking a language it is important to be able to break it down into its distinct sounds. Remember when first coming into contact with English? A whole conversation may sound like one big run-on word! However, with time and with contact it becomes easier to hear syllables and words.
Obviously the most fruitful way to listen to a language is to be surrounded by it constantly, while having little to no contact with your native language. This forces you to listen because your native language cannot be used as a backup to get you out of a situation that you do not completely understand. Realistically, not everyone has the luxury of living abroad and being fully immersed into their target language, but that is no longer a deterrent. YouTube, language learning podcasts and internet radio are great resources to utilize listening to your target language every day. It is a great idea to listen to one of these while doing menial tasks around the house such as cleaning or cooking. The foreign language becomes the background noise that you will slowly grow accustomed too.
Lip/Mouth Movement and Tongue Placement
Once you are able to distinguish the basic phonemes it advisable to immediately start learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This is a systematic method of phonetic notation that makes reading foreign words much easier because every sound has its own character–much like the Croatian system! This can be learned through IPA charts and apps. The iPA Phonetics app is very beneficial because not only does it allow you to hear the sound of each letter but it shows you a close up video of the mouth and lips—not only can you hear the sound, but you can see how the sound is made. Both of these are very important to get the correct accent.
Aside from listening and watching this app, it is helpful to practice these letters on your own in front of a mirror. Are your mouth and lips making the same movements as the app? How are these movements different from those in your native language? Becoming conscious of these subtleties can help you sound more like a native speaker.
Once getting down the basic mouth and lip movements it is time to focus on pronunciation. This is putting all the individual sounds you learned with the IPA together. It is advisable to practice words and phoneme combinations that differ from the combinations in your native language. However, this is not enough. You have to focus on articulation and the tone of voice.
The most significant part of an accent are the vowels. Most constants are the same or at least very similar across languages, but vowels are tricky. Practicing getting vowel sounds correct greatly improves your accent.
As silly as it may sound tongue twisters immensely improve your accent because they focus on a certain phoneme through various words in a sentence. Tongue twisters are tricky to say correctly in your own native language, so practicing them in your target language helps you learn and get used to these difficult sounds.
Reading out loud and recording yourself helps you track your progress. This exercise is twofold. You practice both speaking and critical listening. There are many foreign language and dual language books which are excellent sources for practicing. Some of these books are also sold as audio books so you can listen to the audio version and compare it to your own practice recording.
After getting down pronunciation, you will notice that every language has its own melody. The words are spoken in a certain rhythm with emphasis and stresses in different places. Building up a music library gives you access to music that brings this out. Not only will it help you learn new words and sentence structures, it loosens you up making it easier to achieve the accent of your target language.
Singing songs in your favorite genre are a great way to start. The basic rhythm of these songs are somewhat familiar to you and you identify with them. This creates a emotional connection and makes accent practice much more enjoyable. Singing along with a song also helps you imitate sounds. Once you are more advanced rapping is another way to practice improving your accent. Like tongue twisters rapping tends to be fast and with all the rhyming it can be a challenge to learn, but provides immense benefits once it is acquired!
When singing it is important to be emotionally present—feel the rhythm and become part of the song. Focus not only on the music of the song, but on the music of the language. Singing helps you exaggerate this which improves your accent.
Lastly every language has its own mentality. This mentality forms the culture which affects the language, so why not become an actor? Act out the language! Embrace the emotions that are shown or not shown. Language is not just words—gestures and body language play a huge part in unspoken communication. Embracing these help you to break free of your own culutral boundaries.
Practicing reverse mimicry is an acting technique that helps improve your accent. This is when you speak your native language in the accent of your target language. With this you are practicing the accent without any of the worrying that may come along with speaking in your target language. The accent is much easier to achieve in this manner. So practice speaking in Croatian with and American or British accent. Once that is easy try to transition that to your English!
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!!
It is important to note that speaking a language is a means of interacting more effectively with others. The less you sound like a foreigner the easier you will be understood. Achieving a foreign accent helps you sound more confident and fluent thus making it easier for people to engage in conversation with you. Despite this you should never be ashamed of where you are in the learning process. Even if you are a complete beginner, get out there and try your best! Start practicing an American or British accent at beginning of your English language learning journey. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain! Incorporate these five tips into your daily language learning routine and your accent will improve. You will only get better with practice!