How to speak a foreign language without accent

DaVinci   Sunday, October 24, 2004, 19:42 GMT
What is your experience when you try to learn and speak a foreign language as authentically as possible, i.e. eliminating your own native accent as much as possible?

Of course first of all one needs to listen a lot to authentic audio material and then try to imitate it as best as possible. But what is your best practice?

Do you just use a microphone, record your voice, then listen to your recordings, and then re-record and re-record again until the cows come home? Or/and do you use other/additional, maybe more sophisticated equipment and methods to make this process more efficient?
Jim   Monday, October 25, 2004, 01:31 GMT
I've only ever listened carefully and repeated the sounds as I heard them. It seems to have worked well enough for me.

This approach might not be good for everyone though. Perhaps some find this easier than others or perhaps it's just because I've never worried too much about eliminating my accent. I've aways found it to be much more productive to concentrate on the issue of getting my point across.

As I see it, the thing that causes this foreign accent is the use of the more familiar sounds of one's first language. This is what you've got to avoid. As I say: listen to the sounds of your second lanugage and repeat them as they are.

Don't go drawing connexions to the sounds of your first language. The sounds of any two languages may be close but they don't always match exactly. The Japanese "r", for example, is a whole new sound you've got to learn: there is no such sound in English. You could try the English /r/ or the English /l/ but you'd not sound quite right.
Ailian   Monday, October 25, 2004, 02:41 GMT
>The Japanese "r", for example, is a whole new sound you've got to learn:
>there is no such sound in English.

Not quite: The "r" is an alveolar tap, which is quite prevalent in North American varieties of English (moreso in American than Canadian, but...). We simply use it in different places (usually under the spelling of "t" or "d").
Tim   Monday, October 25, 2004, 03:03 GMT
Yeah I admit that the North American d or t in the middle of words can be quite similar to the Japanese r, but it's not exactly the same either. besides, those sounds occur only in the middle of words and almost never at the beginning or the end of words, so you still need a lot of practice.
the same goes for the French L and the Standard English L. The L in standard american english can have some regional differences, but in most accents the english L is not always clear L like it is in French.
sometimes it's not good enough to just listen and repeat, because you can't always know how to produce the sound by listening to them. I think it is quite effective to learn some basics of phonetics.
Steve K   Monday, October 25, 2004, 03:03 GMT

Are you suggesting that in transliterating Japanese we should substitute "d" for "r"

"idiguchi" for entrance etc.?

I do not think so. the Japanese "r" is a unique sound, close to "d" in rudder no doubt, but different nevertheless.
Mxsmanic   Monday, October 25, 2004, 03:05 GMT
The alveolar tap is also the standard 'r' in Spanish, for the "short" 'r' that is not trilled (i.e., the 'r' in "pero").

Anyway, eliminating an accent is a combination of careful study and extended practice. You must learn exactly how the sounds of the native language are pronounced, then you must pronounce them that way and practice a lot until the correct pronunciations become automatic. It's usually possible to pronounce individual sounds or words without an accent in just a few minutes with a good teacher or good reference material, but doing it consistently and automatically in connected speech takes a lot longer.

You must study how the sounds are made, which sounds are important for meaning, which sounds are not important for meaning, and learn to produce them _all_ (because producing only phonemic differences makes you comprehensible, but still leaves you with an accent).

You don't need any special equipment. You need good reference material (books on pronunciation and phonetics, particularly for the target language), and you need to learn transcription so that you can study transcripts of connected speech and imitate them. Then you just practice and practice until you get it right. Be sure to correct all mistakes, all the time. Unlike normal pronunciation study (for comprehension only), no detail is too small to correct when you are eliminating an accent.

Eventually you'll succeed. It's rather tedious work, which is why only people who are specifically motivated and determined to eliminate an accent ever actually do so. It's very, very easy to stop as soon as you speak well enough to make yourself understood.

Individual aptitude plays a role, but everyone can eliminate an accent sooner or later. Some people are a bit better at it, some are a bit worse.

There are special teachers for this, if you can afford them. They work to train people like actors to speak without accents (note that different actors vary widely in their ability to speak without accents, though).
Tim   Monday, October 25, 2004, 03:18 GMT
Exactly, the Japanese r is very similar to the Spanish r.(not the rr or r at the beginning of words)

Personally the problem with foreign speakers of English and Japanese(I can only speak of those two languages because they are the only 2 languages I can speak fluently) is the intonation or the rhythm. Especially in Japanese many people do not have so many problem with the individual sound, but we can detect the foreign accent immediately after someone say something with a strange tone. I think the same goes for English too... you sound quite natural if you speak English with a natural intonation and rhythm even if your individual sounds is not perfect.
Jim   Monday, October 25, 2004, 03:59 GMT
Definitely the Japanese "r" is very close to the flap "t" (as in "waiter") but it's not exactly the same. Also, Tim's right: the flap "t" occurs only intervocalically, not so the Japanese "r". Transliterating it as "d" would be a very bad idea if only for the simple reason that [d] exists in Japanese (e.g. "Hokkaido") so this letter already has a more sensible job.
Ailian   Monday, October 25, 2004, 04:09 GMT
I am only going with how *I* say things and as I've heard them. The Japanese flap is more or less the same as the flaps that are used throughout American English as I have heard it.

I say things as they sound phonetically using the little IPA in my head. I never said anything about transliterating the "r" as a "d" -- who knows where you all got that into your heads!
Jim   Monday, October 25, 2004, 04:55 GMT
I'll tell you how I got it into my head: Steve K put it there. I was directing my comment at his suggestion not at you, Ailian.
Ori   Monday, October 25, 2004, 06:07 GMT
But WHY should we do so?

Well, at least if our foreign language is English.

English is an international language. If you can speak English in American, British, Canadian, Australian, South-African, Scottish and Irish accents, why can't you speak English in Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Chinese accents?
Jim   Monday, October 25, 2004, 06:24 GMT
Exactly: why? Well if you're an actor(ess), you'll want to use the accent of your character which may be different to your own. Which reminds me ...

"There are special teachers for this, if you can afford them." writes Mxsmanic "They work to train people like actors to speak without accents (note that different actors vary widely in their ability to speak without accents, though)."

No they don't. Nobody has the ability to speak English without an accent. You can't speak English without an accent: it's logically impossible. I'm sure Mxsmanic realises this. What they do is train people to speak with a different accent.

If you're an actor(ess) or con(wo)man there's a point to this. Also if you live in the World where people judge you on your accent, you might feel obliged to change it.
Ori   Monday, October 25, 2004, 07:33 GMT
But I'm not an actor.

And it's too bad that there are people who judge others on their accent. Do I have to expend an effort to change my accent just for such people? Are they worth it?
Mxsmanic   Monday, October 25, 2004, 17:45 GMT
The difference between native and foreign accents is that native accents tend to be mutually intelligible, whereas foreign accents tend not to be mutually intelligible.

As for expending effort to suppress an accent, that's up to you. But it's a sad fact that if you speak a language with a thick accent and someone else does not, you may lose out in negotiations and in other situations because of the negative impression made by foreign accents.
Steve K   Monday, October 25, 2004, 18:41 GMT
I do not know what your native langauge is. If you hear two Americans speaking your language, one with a thick accent which shows no effort to approximate how your language is pronounced and another with a near native sound to it. Which person impresses you more, all other things being equal?

Speaking with a good native accent is an asset, not the whole story but a major asset. The more neutral or standard that accent is, the better. Paris over Marseilles, Tokyo over Kansai, Beijing over Shanghai, General American over New York.

I suggest you stop your PC dreaming. Pronunciation is like dressing appropriately. It is superficial but it influences how most people react.