Your accent is the first thing people notice when you speak in a foreign language. People’s perception of your language ability varies depending on how closely your accent resembles that of a native speaker. Both native speakers and those with no knowledge of the language use accent as a measure of language mastery. This association is problematic given that the two are often unrelated. I know people with near-native accents whose foreign language ability is minimal, and I know people with heavy accents who have near-native proficiency. However, the better your accent, the more comfortable native speakers will be speaking to you in their native language. Other students will also be more eager to practice their skills with you. And it just may be that you yourself will be more comfortable operating in the language. People with solid language skills are often timid about speaking due solely to their poor accent. It follows that a better accent can lead to better linguistic development. And, most importantly, it can make the process of acquiring a foreign language that much more enjoyable.
Fortunately, there are steps students of all levels can take to improve their accent. For this segment, I thought it would be best to consult my friend and university professor David Contreras. Professor Contreras has been teaching English in Colombia for 10 years and has had the opportunity to provide language instruction to more than 500 students. He is currently based in the Business Department at La Universidad del Magdalena, a research university located in the coastal city of Santa Marta. Here is a transcript taken from our conversation on WhatsApp.
Q: Professor Contreras, thank you for agreeing to participate in the conversation. One of the first things I noticed when I met you is how closely your accent resembles that of a native speaker. Is this how you sounded when you first started speaking English?
A: Speaking was actually the last language skill I developed. When I first started out, my accent wasn’t the best and I would often mispronounce words.
Q: What are some observations you have made about developing a good accent from personal experience and from all your years teaching English?
A: The best way to develop a good accent is to imitate native speakers. This is how I improved my accent. Over the years I have had many students who spoke English with a beautiful accent even though they had no formal training. These students learned the language by listening to songs and watching movies and television.
Q: So would you say that listening is the key to imitation hence the ability to speak a foreign language with a good accent?
There you have it, folks. If you want to improve your accent in a foreign language, you can start by listening to native media and imitating native speakers. You may not see results overnight. Take my mother, for example, who moved to the US when she was 22. She had studied English in Jordan throughout her educational years. When I heard a recording of her speaking English when she first arrived to the US, I was surprised to discover how much her accent has improved. I attribute this progress to her regular interactions with native speakers. Being immersed in an English-speaking environment all those years enabled her to imitate native speech patters better than she could when she lived in a country whose native language is not English.
Relieving Tension in the Voice
Another factor that influences accent quality is tension around the vocal cords. Tension influences the ability of an individual to speak or sing clearly in any language, including his or her native language. The effect of tension is magnified when speaking in a foreign language due to a relative lack of experience with its pronunciation. When tension is released from the voice, a marked improvement in accent quality is often the end result.
There are a number of techniques to clear tension in the voice. These techniques are regularly used by singers before practice sessions and performances. And they are equally effective with the speaking voice. One of the most common of these techniques is an exercise called the lip roll. The lip roll is a popular warm-up favored by professionals and amateurs alike. See the video below in which professional singer and celebrity voice coach Eric Arceneaux demonstrates the technique.
Another technique endorsed by the experts is yawning. Yawning naturally relieves relieve tension in the voice by contracting the muscles in and around the vocal cords. With practice, anyone can learn to yawn at will. In the video below, Academy Award-Winning Actor Morgan Freeman, renowned for his clear, resonant voice, explains how yawning improves sound quality.
There are a myriad of other techniques you can find online. The lip roll and yawning just happen to be my favorite. Remember that stress is a common source of tension in the body. Any voice coach will tell you that tension in the neck, shoulders, and back negatively impacts resonance. Keeping stress levels low enables you to generate the best sound your organism is capable of producing.
Let us know what you think in the comments. Has your accent at all evolved since you first began studying a foreign language? What strategies and exercises have you found most effective at improving the quality of your accent?