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Things I did to improve my English and reduce my accent (goodcharacters.com)
106 points by goodcharacters on Sept 2, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 77 comments

Having some accidental knowledge of this market:

1) Professional speech therapy is surprisingly inexpensive and mostly sold to parents, who mostly pay out of pocket (as opposed to via insurance, even though it is semi-medical).

2) Lots of professionals pay for accent coaching / accent modification, which can be accomplished by someone with patience, a good ear, good rapport, and no expensive degree. This is a good part-time job for people with an "in" in a particular foreign community, by the way. (I'm personally aware of Japanese executives who spend $X00 an hour for it. Cheap at the price if it gets you the promotion, right?)

3) Professional translators would suggest shadowing, which is taking source material (like a news program, video, etc) and just trying to reproduce it exactly like the original in real time. This is maddeningly difficult the first several times you do it, but you will get better really quickly. (I tape myself doing it, which is useful if you want to get e.g. native feedback or just have a record of progress.)

Shadowing works remarkably well. When I'm doing voice acting for a film (or indeed, GMing a roleplaying game) and I need an accent I suck at, it's the most effective technique I've found for rapidly improving the quality of my accent.

Great article. I would like to add some more...

1. I used to watch that American TV series "24" and I tried to repeat everything Jack Bauer said in the same way he said it... I even tried to mimic his facial expressions. People say my accent improved and nobody complained that I speak like a CTU agent. You can pick your favourite character.

2. There are great services like http://livemocha.com/ - you can do exercises and you can record yourself and upload it and native speakers let you know what mistakes you made - you do the same thing for people trying to learn your language. And even listening to yourself from the recording helps.

3. I got rid of the fear. At the beginning I was afraid to talk, I don't even know why, nobody is ever going to laugh at you. But I learned that foreign accent can even be good for you... it makes you interesting and it's a conversation starter - oh, how many of my friends I met after "that's an interesting accent, where are you from?"

1. This can work accidentally too, btw. I've been watching a lot of the show "Justified" recently, and yesterday had cause to mimic a West Coast US accent - only to discover that the bloody thing slipped into Kentucky (or at least the show's interpretation of Kentucky) and would not move. It took me a good 20 minutes to eliminate the drawl.

2. That's a fantastic link - thanks.

You can pick your favourite character.

Please don't pick anyone from the show "My Name is Earl".

Actually this is a real problem - sometimes it might be difficult for foreigners to recognize that some words or sayings have a certain subtext or are vulgar or somehow inappropriate. I remember some very embarrassing situations caused by this.

Why not use professional-topic audiobooks, then?

We're conflating deficiencies with theoretical knowledge about a language on the one hand and vocal motor skills on the other. Those should really be handled differently, and neither issue is well described by the word "accent".

Maybe this will sound familiar to someone.

I confess I have an accent. I don't necessarily recognize myself in the pg article that started it all. Most of my dialogue is in English, on average about 70% maybe. I don't think I have problems picking up subtle verbal clues.

Here's the thing though: after talking in German for a few hours, my English pronunciation get completely destroyed (the same thing happens vice-versa, though not it's usually not that bad). And when I get tired, my speech sounds more like "lurrr-burrrr rurrr-jurrr" than a human language.

On the other hand, I'm probably somewhat hindered by the fact that most of my communication happens with other non-native speakers, such as Scandinavian or Asian people. My writing skills are somewhat terrible as well, but in any language.

Anyway, this whole hubbub has got me thinking: should I do something or not? I'd like to think there are way worse speakers out there, and on the whole I get pretty good results at my job, but of course that doesn't mean things shouldn't be improved. I'm just having trouble deciding how bad it really is. I also can't really tell whether I'm improving or not.

As a Spanish, English, Portuguese and French speaker I completely agree, but I'd add there are too many sides in this issue.

I notice there's a context switch every time I switch language that destroys grammar and pronunciation. I get back to "cruise" proficiency in about 30 min to 1 hour. except for my native language.

I'd advise you to look for conversation with natives, as I've noticed I dumb down my pronunciation and expression due to the low English level of my coworkers, and every time I hit a Brit and have some beers it feels refreshing and like a different language.

I'm not sure if we're conflating them, and I'm a also not sure that it matters. Both problems are vulnerable to attack via practice, so if they are a bad signal or a bad attribute, a dedicated person can overcome them.

Now, I would have to temper the previous statement by saying I have great admiration for anyone who goes to the trouble of learning my language, considering I haven't troubled myself to learn theirs. The prior statement was not meant to be a judgment on people with accents, only an observation under the hypothetical closure of PG's statement being true.

I tend to not discount people's English language acumen when English is not their primary language.

Think about it. How many English speakers are fluent in more than one language, or, like myself, are barely literate in our primary language?

I deal with people from all over the world, and am always impressed by people who can converse in my primary language as well as I am able, and those who may have small difficulties with syntax, etc, are still able to convey their ideas to me despite many language shortcomings.

HN at its best. Someone (pg) mentions that people with strong accents tend to have problems building start-ups. We have a brief rant about how he's not "politically correct." Finally, someone offers a way to help solve the problem, followed up by other helpful comments.

I live in Brno in the Czech Republic where many American companies have their branches and they employ many Americans. Some of them had the great idea to organize weekly English parties where they can socialize - but they made it open, anybody can come, not only Americans. It's such a great way to improve your English while meeting new interesting people.

The idea was so successful here that the Facebook group has already more than 3000 people and now we also have Spanish parties and many other languages are starting to get traction. It's actually getting a bit out of hand - last English party was attended by so many people that we did not fit into the restaurant they booked for us, many people were drinking and talking on a sidewalk in front of the pub and I am afraid we were so loud that someone called the cops. That's what I call great language-learning opportunity.

The propaganda against our differences is disturbing me. AFAIK, there's no "accent-free" dialect of any language. If some people can't understand you because of your accent, and if it's important to communicate with them you can, of course, push yourself a bit as long as they do the same. If nobody can understand you because of your grammar, than that's another story.

It's been quite ironic to me. 'losing an accent' or rather, 'gaining an American accent' to 'speak English', or rather 'American English'. That said, I've seen people from the USA move to England and over several years they started speaking better English with less of an accent.

Less of an American accent? Surely their English would be unchanged but for vocabulary; it's not like grammar differs.

Anyway, just because a country is a language's namesake does not indicate anything but history. A language is a dialect with an army, so perhaps we should rename it American. Names of languages are arbitrary.

Grammar does differ, though, in subtle ways that don't necessarily impede communication but that mark the speaker for region. The participle gotten is probably the most prominent example; it is essentially unknown in most British English varieties and tense construction has more irregularities in British English than it tends to have in US English. (We Canadians speak both and neither, and nobody really knows the rules from day to day. They change on a pseudorandom sort of schedule covered by the Security of Information Act, and those in charge will neither tell us what's going on nor reveal their identities.)

I'm originally from France, and I used three methods to improve my english: 1) Reading in english. back in high school, when I was still a beginner, my go-to books in english were the Harry Potter series: not because I have a particular fancy for the books, but because I'd already read them in French so I could guess the meaning of most words without a dictionary. I actually extended this method to Spanish and Latin, pretty successfully.

2) Watch movies. I started with french subtitles, then switched to english subtitles. I stayed with english subtitles for quite a while as I thought I wasn't ready to remove them. Then I spent 6 months abroad and did not have access to subtitles, so I was forced to watch movies in english without subtitles. I had to replay a lot of scenes on my first couple tries, but picked it up quickly.

3) The single most important thing I did to improve my english is .. to stop speaking french. That's right. I've been leaving in the US for about 2 years now, and I avoid french speaking people like the plague. And if for some reason I can't avoid it, then I speak english with them. No french. See, a lot of the foreigners I've seen who struggle with the language tend to stick with other foreigners from their country. That's the worst possible thing to do if you want to improve your english. I've seen people who've been in the US for 8 years and can still barely speak english: they don't need to since they almost never actually speak it in their community.

Now I don't know if that works for everyone. I've met a couple other people who've used a similar strategy, and obtained similar results, but that's still not a very large sample.

3/ Is not possible when you have kids and want to teach them your native languages. I have to speak French every at home, this is the only opportunity for my kids to hear this language.

Jezz, this is bullshit - you already have to learn English, now you have to improve your accent, then you have to look certain way. Stop following the moving goal posts.

I don't know where "strong accents correlate to business comes from".

People are building amazing companies all around the world - with or without 'proper English accent'. Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan build super successful organizations and high GDP with terrible English accents.

Damn people, don't let people make you feel inferior.

Yes, it's very helpful to have it be easy to understand you. If you don't like that, go live in a different universe.

Accent has little to do with the ability to communicate clearly.

In some cases it does. There are accents, even among English-as-a-first-language speakers that are almost unintelligible.

For example, many Americans struggle to understand the kind of English accent used by some recent immigrants from India -- immigrants who by and large speak perfect English.

Grammar might be perfect, but thick accents can be a tremendous impedance to communication.

In these cases it can be even worse since the speaker knows they're speaking correctly, but just can't make themselves understood, even in basic conversations. Accent training is the perfect and only solution.

Nothing against your general point but...

even among English-as-a-first-language speakers...

kind of English accent used by some recent immigrants from India

Those two statements don't work together. Almost nobody in India speaks English as a first language.

Well, I'll refine that statement a bit. There are, in fact, families in India who speak a lot of English in day-to-day situations. This works both as a status symbol as well as a tremendous advantage in the professional world. But I'll bet these are not the people whose accents you'd have trouble understanding. Kids from such backgrounds usually grow up watching a lot of American/British TV/movies and are usually able to operate fluently in an international (not just American) English speaking environment.

Correct. Let me add Ireland as a good example of that as well

I often get to translate what my Brisbane colleagues are saying to my Seattle colleagues. I'm from Europe and not a native English speaker. I suppose it makes me more indifferent to thick accents. However, Danish accents are too severe even for me.

It has little to do or it should have little to do with the ability to communicate clearly? Because I strongly suspect you mean the latter, not the former. There are plenty of examples of the former.

I mean the former. People communicate with each other just fine - with or without accents, with or without stutters, with or without lisping.

Accents are part of people's identity because of the nature of their mother tongue. The Italians have strong accent, as well as Russians and Indians. They are fine - they are not a deficiency.

Ban Ki Moon is a UN Secretary General - and boy, he has an accent. It works fine for him being a diplomat whose job is to talk and talk and talk.

"now you have to improve your accent, then you have to look certain way."

Culture is a likely intermediate step. I'm not into watching other people play sports, or top40 music, or drinking beer as a hobby, or watching TV for 8 hours per day, or going to church, and that occasionally makes it difficult to relate to people who have their entire life revolve around those topics (aka stereotypical Americans).

I speak perfect midwestern "newscaster" English (Guess where I live? We all sound like that around here, so its no competitive advantage.) However it is still hard to relate in small talk. True stories : "What did you do Sunday, we went to church, went shopping and bought the latest Miley Cyrus cd do you have it yet? Then I got drunk sitting on the couch watching football all afternoon for nine hours and three six packs, still kinda hung over this morning". "Um, well I went for a 4 mile hike around sunrise before it got warm, then hacked around on my computer for most of the day, spent some quality time in the workshop soldering together a little micro controller project with my son, went outside and watched a really cool thunderstorm around dinner time, then watched some youtube video series about dwarf fortress and laughed at the host's antics (LOL he made a hole in the floor next to his well into the ceiling of a lower level, then managed to flood his well, then tried to wall up the flooding corridor with the hole still in the floor, then as usual the dwarf built the wall trapping himself on the flooding side LOL F-ing dwarfs), then the host panicked.) This is usually followed by crickets on both sides as we consider each other's lifestyles insanely boring and a total waste of time. I find it best to size someone up and if they look like a boring bubba type then simply avoid all small talk about culture, but sales/CEO/manager types cannot.

When conversations like this happen to me, its merely funny, but when a CEO tries to talk to a business partner this has serious financial costs. The problem with a Korean dude wanting to spend the first 15 minutes of the sales meeting talking about his epic starcraft battle last night is not just the accent.

There are a lot of well-understood techniques to get around this problem, FYI - from "How To Win Friends And Influence People" onward.

For example, you could ask questions about the interests of the person you're talking to - "Really? I've not listened to much Miley Cyrus, I must admit. Which of her CDs would you recommend?". You could draw parallels between their entertainment and yours - "Yeah, we spent a lot of the afternoon watching video too! How was the football?". You could sympathise with any complaints they're making - "Aww, man, you're having to do this meeting hung over? That sucks. Can I grab you some water or something?".

It's definitely a problem, though, agreed - and it's something that's very worth thinking about if you're doing business cross-culturally.

I think you miss the point. They are talking about people who live in the US and must sell their work primarily in English.

Go live in New York City. People negotiate accents just fine.

One thing I found can be helpful is to imitate a native speaker, as if you are doing an impression of them. I think there is a part of us which remaps phenomes from a foreign language in to our mother tongue, which creates the accent. However, if you imagine you are mimicing someone, like a comedian, a different mental process happens and you replicate more of the nuances.

When I was trying to learn Mandarin I had the good fortune to get instruction from a friend who is a native speaker and a concert pianist.

In order to teach the tones (chinese uses pitch to make vocabulary distinctions) she convinced me to sing the words. She literally wrote the tones out on staff paper (i am also a musician) and i treated the phrases as little songs. It worked surprisingly well.

I realized that it was really hard to make myself speak that way. I felt ridiculous singing at people. In a certain sense it felt artificial, as if I was making fun of them. But I think that is what it takes to start the process of speaking new sounds. You have to let go of "your" voice and "your" way of speaking, which is rooted in your native language's sound, and almost assume a character who sounds like a different person.

Full disclosure: I don't remember much Mandarin anymore. But if i were learning Spanish I would try the same thing. I would imagine myself as a Spanish dude and "put on a Spanish accent" as if I were acting in a movie.

Some anecdotes, my half-sister and I pick up new accents in a couple of weeks. She used to go split time between her mother in the south and my parents and she'd come back to us with a rich accent full of local colloquialisms. We'd send her back a few weeks later wearing our accents and colloquialisms.

I've found that I subconsciously do the same thing. For example, I spent a couple weeks in Australia for business and came back saying "How ya goin'", "mate", "cheers", "no worries", "good on ya" that sort of thing for a day or so till I readapted. Same thing for other countries a bit, but native English countries are the worst. I came back from a month in Ireland with a transitional accent that took me a full week to shake off.

My wife is South Korean and over the years I've adopted her Konglishisms and we communicate (very effectively I might add) in a kind of pidgin which does absolutely nothing to help her accent and grammar struggles. She actually doesn't know I do it, because I've somehow managed to fit my patterns into that weird gap where Korean doesn't translate into English -- e.g. I'll use singular nouns instead of plural nouns since Korean doesn't make any distinction.

It's also kind of embarrassing in group gatherings when I'll revert to pidgin with her and then a more normal English with somebody else. I actually can't help it, it's like an automatic code-switch that I have to actively suppress. I can feel myself, almost out of my control, measuring the other speaker and adapting my speech patterns to theirs. Entire swaths of vocabulary and idiomatic phrases will move into and out of my working memory like slippery bars of wet soap as I change groups of people.

When I worked a sales job, I'd use a brief conversation to try and adapt to the customer's style of speech. I started using sales-y phrases and when I'd come back to talk to engineering I had to code-switch to talk to the engineers, and sometimes translating from the code I was just in to the one I was in now would feel like doing heavy math.

I actually can't force it either. I can't dredge back up forgotten accents. I can't go "Australian" or "Irish" or "Konglish" when I'm not in those milieus. It's bizarre and kind of troubling at the same time. I grew up in a heavily multi-cultural area and wonder if this is an artifact of that upbringing.

My father on the other hand was born and raised with a deep American country accent. In 1949, When he was 16 he ran away from home and went to live in a major metropolitan city with its own rich accent tapestry. Unfortunately, his country accent marked him in the kinds of negative ways that country accents do in cities and he struggled finding good jobs, good friends, etc.. It took him a couple years of daily study to shed his accent and turn it into a "neutral" middle American one and this stuck with him to this day. He actually is unable to revert to his childhood accent (my mother has asked him many times). Fortunately, he has a number of brothers, most of whom kept their original regional accent...with 1 other exception.

My uncle fell hopelessly in love with a Puerto Rican woman who was unable to overcome deep cultural differences in the U.S. They married, and he moved with her back home and stayed till they both passed on. He had a thick Puerto Rican accent and spoke Puerto Rican Spanish at home. He claimed that he had lived there so long that he no longer thought in English, but the local Spanish dialect. His children are decently bilingual, but their children are not.

It reminds me a bit of James Dresnok. He was one of the few American defectors to North Korea. There's a couple astonishing documentaries about him ("Crossing the Line" and "An American in North Korea"). In his interviews he speaks in English, with much of his original Richmond, Virginia accent intact. His English has become a bit stilted over the years, due to lack of use no doubt. He's not nearly as interesting as his son, a blond haired blue eyed man born and raised in North Korea, with Korean as his native tongue. When he speaks English, if I close my eyes, he has a Korean accent. It's kind of mind blowing.

My wife is a fan of Project Runway, and a few seasons ago they had a contestant (Anya Ayoung-Chee) on from the West Indies. I heard her before I saw her and recognized the accent, hearing it on in the other room and having grown up with a few friends from there. Then one day I watched the show with her and was shocked to see that this contestant was ethnically Asian. It was fascinating watching her talk, and expecting the normal kind of Asian-speaking-Englishisms, but instead getting a rich accent from Trinidad.

There's also a family friend who's nearing retirement. Also from South Korea but who speaks almost flawless English (except for a few small insurmountable details), we had a conversation about people's perceptions of foreigners based on their accents. She said that over the years, and she's seen this a number of times, foreigners who come and start to perfect their English reach a kind of uncanny valley where, as their proficiency nears native speaker levels, the small things they still do wrong are magnified. Most of them actually forcibly regress their proficiency because they find they get treated better. She said that they feel like having a worse accent makes people perceive them as a smart foreigner who learned another language rather than a stupid native speaker who can't talk right.

Finally my wife, she's struggled mightily with this specific topic. From her largely unpronounceable-to-Americans name to working in a professional setting with largely Americans. For a while she dealt with this by getting a very good job with other East Asians doing development work. But she's found herself working with 100% Americans recently and feels very overwhelmed by it all. She's very outgoing and conversational, and people warm up to her quickly. But they rapidly overestimate her English proficiency. Her accent hasn't exactly faded over the years, but she's managed to make herself just clear enough that 95% of people understand her 95% of the time.

Even after 15 years, she still confused pronouns, plurals, articles and particles and other basic English. She reads English books for an hour or so every day for practice, and our conversations are filled with small corrections from me on minor points of grammar, or explanations of idioms or slang. She also hyper corrects Koreanisms, and turns words with "p"'s into words with "f"s (Korean doesn't have an "f", so when they loan-in words that do, they typically use a "p" or and "h" sound, turning "fighting" into "hwighting", she's simply reversing this). I've had to reverse translate lots of questions where she's looking for a "fan" to do some cooking.

The truth is, she just doesn't have an ear for languages. She gets by, very competently and proficiently I'd add, by keeping her sentences simple and conversational. But it definitely has profound effects for her in formal business situations. She'll get nervous and fall back to polite-Korean-towards-seniors behavior while speaking English -- nervous smiles at everything and an almost pathological inability to have more than simple conversations involving basic greetings, on topics that she's an expert in. It's excruciating to watch, seeing all this brilliance locked up by language barriers.

I know she's highly intelligent, and we spend many late nights going over slides and papers for her work, fixing grammar issues here and there, letting her practice lectures and presentations.

It's tough, language is tough, and it's taught me that people with accents should be listened to extra carefully because they may just have some real smarts in them, screaming to get out.

Wow, I'm a South Korean married to an American, and I've been in the US for 15 years too. Your comment is fascinating. I'm gonna have to devise some tests to see which pidgins my husband is sneaking into his English when he talks to me!

The switching back-and-forth in social occasions worries me -- it may be all good intentions, but I want to have better contol over how the 3rd party may perceive us/me.

It is definitely interesting to hear the observations from the native partner's point of view, and the "coping" stories from the other side :) Thank you.

Why do i tend to think think that people should be proud of their accent,...in any case your problem was that you didn't know enough english and not your accent

Yes! All these articles about English knowledge are incorrectly centred in the accent. Accents are not a problem! The problem is the language: the vocabulary, the grammar and the syntax. Of course, if the accent is so strong that nobody can't understand you, you'll be in trouble, but, in general, the main problem is not the accent, it's the knowledge of the language itself.

This is it: bad grammar is not "accent." Not using (or overusing) the article "the" is bad grammar, for instance. And a bad pronuntiation is not accent, it is a mistake (there is a difference between hearing a French pronouncing "ze book" and another one saying "the book" but with difficulty; the former is making a mistake, the latter has an accent.

It's funny that you mention it - I would say that using "the", "a" and "an" might be the most difficult task for me when I try to speak English. I tried to learn the rules but it seems to me that there are so many rules with so many exceptions that I am unable to get it right - it feels overwhelming and I am never sure whether I used it right or not. I cannot grasp the concept intuitively. Any trick to overcome this would be greatly appreciated.

The indefinite article ("a" or "an") is either a "pick from a collection" word or a new information marker in English. The definite article ("the") is either a specifier or refers to something that has already been introduced (old information, if you will). Think of "the" in most cases as a sort of weakened version of "that", and it may help. It is a subtle distinction, and one which may quickly become intuitive to a native speaker, but not one that a native speaker can always explain when asked. (Europeans generally have less trouble, but definite and indefinite articles are a European areal feature.) It doesn't help at all that the rules are often deliberately broken in literature to force the reader into a scene (usually by using a definite article for a first introduction, as if you'd known about it all along).

A cat appeared on my back porch this morning. (New cat, no history at this point.) The cat then proceeded to shred the upholstery on every bit of furniture it could find. (We've already met the cat; using "a" in this sentence would introduce another cat.)

Of course John speaks a bit of Portuguese; he married a Portuguese woman. (We may have known John's wife for many years, but in this case she is merely one of a collection of Portuguese women. If we had used "the" in this sentence, it would imply that there is only one Portuguese woman in the world, or at least in the area, and that John married her.)

What's your native language? It's weird since all the languages I know have a form of the/a/an.

If you think it's hard in English, don't try to learn German then, grammatical cases are a pain in the butt.

Chinese Mandarin has no the/a/an, and I believe most languages from the Sino-Tibetan family do the same. It is normally clear in the context anyway so (surprisingly) doesn't even lead to any confusion. They do have 'measure words' which can be used in a similar sort of function to a/an, but they are a bit more abstract.

My native language is Czech which is a Slavic language and we do have something similar to English articles. I think that sometimes it's more difficult to learn something that is kind of similar to what you are used to but not entirely the same - it gets really confusing.

Sorry I did not answer...

I am not a native English speaker so I may not be the best teacher of those details to a person speaking a different mother tongue than mine...

I wouldn't say "incorrectly centered" -- they're not referring specifically to the accent, they're just using it as a metronym for "all the things people who have a native language get wrong about a non-native language", a concept-cluster which doesn't really have a proper name of its own. Someone who says "where they doing" is usually referred to as having an "accent" in this sense.

It isn't just word choice or sentence construction. I have a hard time understanding co-workers that put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, for instance, even when they are speaking grammatical English. I would say it's just one person, but it seems to be a very common thing for people from south India to do this emphasis mixing.

Well they should be proud of their origin and heritage. But here is a story - I was studding telecommunications in the university. One of the things we learned while working with A29 (purely analogue switches from end to end) was that noise and latency were very important.

Latency was not a problem until it was below 100 ms then up to 500 ms it gradually decreased the quality of the conversation but not in significant way. Now at the 500ms mark something funny happened. The person thought that the other party had not heard what he said and begin repeating it while the beginning of the other person answer begin his phone. The comprehensiveness of the conversation decreased dramatically.

It was the same with noise - from a point on it was terrible. I think that accented speech could be considered as noise.

A friend of mine was doing project with Huawei a few years ago - the Chinese team was with strong accents and he was with very strong Eastern European too. They had trouble communicating in English.

Hehe, pick your poison: http://aschmann.net/AmEng/ (This ties in with bane's much more detailed note below about adopting the "customer's style of speech." I do the same, and have a lot of experience in business & social contexts with Brazilians, Mexicans, Indians, Scots, and Chinese via my global organization, and it still boggles my mind how rare it seems to be for people to switch communication styles based on the skills and language/idiom of the person they're speaking with. The flip side, of course, is that when both sides are learning the other's language, if the conversation is attempted in both simultaneously a disaster almost always occurs. Tying in to another of bane's comments, if you are expecting to hear one thing but something else hits your ears, you're going to have a much tougher time comprehending it.

I think belonging to a church probably helps a lot too, just because I know quite a few Christians from foreign countries and all of them have pretty mild accents. Even the ones who've only been speaking English for a few years.

Language immersion would be the obvious factor there but I have a hunch that group singing plays a big role too.

One excellent tool for accent reduction used by linguists but often neglected in language education is IPA (international phonetic alphabet).

You can learn the portion of IPA relevant to the language you're working on, as well has how each symbol translates to mouth movements.

Then you can use the IPA transcriptions available in some dictionaries to not only hear how the word sounds when pronounced by a native speaker, but also know what they are doing mechanically to produce those sounds.

This is especially helpful, because it can train you to identify and produce the different phonemes that your brain isn't attuned to for in your native language (one classic example is japanese speakers' difficulty with r and l, which happens because different languages make different decisions about what constitutes a unique sound).

Here's the way I learn new accents. Bear with me.

I have a hard time learning from people with the accent. Rather, it's easier for me to learn from people who imitates it. Weird.

I know what the American accent (let's say, the 'regular' one, not the Southern one) sounds like. I couldn't talk like that (or at least, I didn't know how close I was). British accent, easy for me, because I learned from someone who could mimic it.

Cue that Monty Python sketch where they're speaking like Americans (it's the Philosophy dinner, I think). Bam, clicked right in.

Charlize Theron mentioned in an "Inside the Actor's Studio" that she solved her accent by "overdoing" the accent she wanted to sound like

Actually, listening to the accent of young children is a good way to get the same exaggerated sounds.

If the Monty Python sketch you're thinking of is the one where everyone is called 'Bruce' the accent is Australian, not American.

Interesting thing about accents is that while you are trying to improve your accent you also improve your ability to understand the accents of others. I am native Czech speaker and I have a friend who is from UK and who tries to learn and speak Czech. None of our Czech friends understands what he is saying - I seem to be the only one who is able to handle his really strong accent. I am explaining this by the theory that living in foreign countries and trying to hear the differences between the way native speakers pronounce something and my pronunciation trained my ear to pick the content out of the noise.

Going twice through this book and following every instruction, I achieved the best improvement of my accent in very short time: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1438071655/ref=as_li_ss_tl?...

I always recommend it to anyone who admires my ‘American’ accent. There are just few simple rules that everyone can learn and familiarize. Accent is a skill.

I wonder if there's a way you could help this with software. I remember reading a long time ago about singing pitch training by realtime headphone feedback (like - if you're singing flat, you are feed back your voice distorted even more flat[1]). I wonder if you could detect and exaggerate differences in prononciation.

[1] - closest I could google now was http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8173617 which makes it look pretty ineffective actually :o/

Wouldn't visual feedback be easier to comprehend?

It is a sad state of affairs that reducing your accent can increase your chances of success, though I guess everyone has a bias towards hiring people like them.

I wish that hiring was done without being able to hear the voice, see the face, or any other details that would identify race, religion, or culture of a prospective hire.

I think that would do a good job of eliminating bias, however the bias would still exist for things like promotions.

I've just read this: Sarah Colwill Speaks Out About Foreign Accent Syndrome In BBC Documentary 'The Woman Who Woke Up Chinese' (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/04/sarah-colwill-_n_38...)

This is the first time I heard “Foreign Accent Syndrome.” Very interesting.

My knowledge of English is based on 24 series of "The Simpsons" so I definitely agree with the point about watching TV.

Before I came to the U.S. in the mid 1990's I geeked out on two grocery bags' worth of VHS tapes of StarTrek Next Generation. Nothing like learning English from the forever affable Captain Picard or the eternally proper Data. I found it very helpful then.

The other piece of advice I have which I didn't see mentioned is to date a local, or several. They care about you and will help you learn. They'll also teach you idiomatic and colloquial language and correct you if you get it wrong.

Lastly: talk to young children ages four through eight or so. Unless they grow up multi-lingually, they don't have a concept of people speaking different languages and will just assume you'll understand and will be able to reply intelligently. They also don't have much experience with accents. For them it's more of a binary thing either they'll get you or they won't, they have no judgment nor enough experience to adapt to you. When learning French that was always my own personal test of how intelligible my speaking was in the foreign language.

If you struggle so hard to imitate an authentic native English speaker accent doesn't that have the side effect of ruining your accent in your native accent?

For example I changed to a Dvorak-like layout, and could barely type QWERTY. (I changed back to QWERTY because it's just too ingrained into everything.)

From my experience - it does not. Sometimes people ask me whether I'm foreigner speaking Hebrew, but it rarely happens, and I think it is more related to the pace of how I speak now and less with the accent.

The best thing I ever did for my accent was doing some simple low paid part-time jobs in restaurants and night clubs in UK. As a foreign bartender, waiter or a bouncer you are forced to speak and most importantly to be confident in a foreign language.

the wife of a (chilean) friend of mine is a speech therapist. the discussions here prompted me to contact her - she thinks she could help my spanish and i'm considering going to some sessions.

if anyone else in santiago wants an introduction / contact email me (to be honest, she may be doing it as a favour to me, as i think she works more with children, but she will have other contacts, and here it's generally better to find people through recommendations than cold calling...)

Any resources to help master that lovely British pronunciation?

Which lovely British pronounciation? You mean like the Queen speaks?

There is so much regional difference between Cornish, Devon, Essex, Newport, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool or Edinburgh I don't see how it's possible to speak English without some accent.

Do you by any chance know that old British TV series "The Professionals"? I understand English pretty well and I even lived in UK for 2.5 years but for some reason this TV show is really difficult to understand for me - half of the time I cannot figure out what they are saying and I do not know why. Is it some local dialect or something?

There are more accents within the UK that have less in common with each other than most other English language speaking countries combined. At least it feels that way when you work in a few pubs there...

A lot of the regions of the UK have pretty strong dialects of English, not just accents e.g. the Doric Scots of my birth uses "fa", "fit", "faur" and "fan" for "who", "what", "where" and "when"

e.g. "far div ye bide" -> "where do you live"

However, I haven't spoken like that much since I was a wee loonie.

For instance, the accent of one of the main characters in Monty Python's Flying Circus. Which one is it?

Or any other std TV shows, which have more or less standardized accents, no?

I think GP meant the shakespearian accent, which is probably the same as the one used in american TV series or movies to sound british.

And by that you probably mean "BBC English" am I right?


Try to "overdo it". Singing also helps (even though there are few singer that sing like that). My way of learning is finding someone that imitates it and then I "get it".


Have you asked for water in a US restaurant? Or herbs in a US store?

I have to modify my language. I have to soften the t in water to a d. I have to drop the h in herbs totally.

Unfortunately, the mastery of a language has not particularly much to do with using grammatically-correct language constructs, or even a correct accent. In that respect, language is a bit like music, and mastery is much more the ability to use grace notes, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_note, than the ability to just follow the rules. "How much can I be off, and break the rules, before I am off too much?" You will find that excellent native speakers are systematically off all the time. This can become a problem for non-native speakers when the real message is hidden in the grace notes. Other native speakers will immediately get the point ...

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