Can You Get Rid of Your Accent?

Accent is something people ask me about from time to time. They want to know how I learned to speak with a good accent in the Arabic language as this is a part of language that most learners can't seem to nail down. This is the most difficult question to answer with regard to language learning. Why do some people have foreign accents when speaking a 2nd language while others are able to minimize or completely eliminate their accent. I haven't eliminated my accent completely, but I've minimized it enough so that if I'm speaking to a native Arabic speaker they will usually just think I am from a different Arabic country than they are. For example, in Jordan people thought I was Lebanese or Syrian or maybe that I had 1 parent who was Arab and another American.

No one is sure why some people have accents and others do not. A person can move to another country when they are 30 and live there until they die and have an accent their entire life while others eliminate their accent very soon after starting to learn the language. I believe it has to do with the music of the language. I'd be willing to bet that musicians are more likely to get rid of their accent than others. Language is a lot like music in that there are different stresses, intonations, and rhythms. Good musicians have an ear for these things. You can, however, learn to be a good musician as well as a good mimicker of accents.

Most people learn a language to communicate, but I wanted to learn Arabic because it just sounded cool. It's sounds were nothing like English and that exotic factor appealed to me. That was my number 1 reason for choosing it. And while learning Arabic the main thing I focused on was where the stress went in words and sentences. It may sound corny and ingenuous, but I viewed Arabic as a song. I was slower to get the meaning of words and slower to understand what people said to me than the others I was learning with, but my pronunciation was always spot on because I viewed the language as music, as a kind of chant. Equally important to me as the definition of a word was being able to reproduce it the way the speaker said it, exactly the way we will try to sing a song on the radio the way the singer himself sings it, putting the emphasis where the singer does and drawing out the syllables that the singer draws out.

I think some language learners go into a new language oblivious to these kinds of things. They learn the meanings of words and the grammar, but pronunciation is secondary. Pronunciation needs to be focused on, at least in the beginning, as much as the meaning of the language. In fact, I would not even go over what the words mean until after spending a few weeks on how to pronounce things and where emphasis goes on the syllables. This will keep the students from focusing on the meaning and ignoring pronunciation since you aren't giving them any definitions yet. In this way Arabic will be viewed as a song first and as a language second. After a few weeks when you start to introduce meaning into this way of singing called Arabic, the students will be versed in how things are supposed to sound.

An Iraqi friend of mine who speaks English fluently, but can immediately be pointed out as a foreigner because of his accent, showed me a program that goes deeper into all of the stresses, rhythms, and flow of language in order to get the correct accent. He says it's really helped him with his accent and I have noticed a difference in the way he speaks as well. I guess sometimes all it takes it raising a persons awareness to the little things they are overlooking. The program he uses is called The American Accent Audio Course and I really wish there was one for Arabic as well. (Hmmm, this gives me an idea :P)

I mention the program because I know there are native Arabic speakers who read this blog and some may benefit from it. I took a look at the program and it's a pretty advanced course which covers all the little things that give someone away as not being a native speaker, such as the correct intonation and stress on different words in the sentence and how these can change meaning or just make the sentence sound weird to Americans, the American 't' that can be pronounced as 't' or 'd' depending on where it is located in the sentence, and a lot more little things that American English speakers take for granted and so would probably never bring up in a class because they don't even notice them themselves. You can get the course here. If you use it please let me know if it helps you as much as it helped my friend.


Anonymous said...

I think that a lot of people end up with a poor accent because they are afraid of sounding ridiculous. Let me explain:

At the beginning when you are learning a language the natural tendency is to adapt the phonemes and intonation of the target language to your mother tongue. Anything else sounds weird to your inner ear and you will resist it, like it or not.

To fight this it is important, when starting to learn a language, to make a conscious effort to exaggerate the intonation of the target language, at the risk of sounding ridiculous. In fact, many times the student will have the impression that they are exaggerating, however in reality they may still very close to the accent of their mother tongue!

It is easier to exaggerate too much at first and then revert to a more normal pronounciation than the opposite.

It can also help to think of it as role playing, indeed many times people with good accents actually take on slightly different personalities when using different languages.

Obviously those that have more than 1 mother tongue have a distinct advantage, because fewer intonations sound weird to their inner ear... I guess those that have taken drama classes or enjoy acting have a similar advantage, besides generally being less fearful of sounding ridiculous.

Rouge said...

Funny thing is that it can also differ between languages. My own accent is minimal when I speak Arabic and I took that for granted and assumed that this would be the same with other languages. It's not the case. My accent is horrifically prominent when I speak French (it almost sounds as if I'm not even trying to sound better!). I really don't understand how it works either.

Lena said...

As a native speaker I appreciate when Americans try their best to make the accent, and are not afraid to make mistakes, thats the only way you will improve. Arabic is so much different than English and is difficult especially for someone to learn how to roll their R's or make the Ayn sound. Your blog amazes me daily, bravo 3lek !

Rituparno Ghosh said...

With different languages the accent differs. The main point is to be able to express your views and be understandable.

Anonymous said...

Professionally speaking, phoneticians get hired by movie directors when one of their actors must have a certain accent. They are one of a few professions good for the job, including speech therapists and maybe linguists.

I come from this issue on the linguistics perspective. Accents boil down to a science of regularly applied inflections to a standard pronunciation, and training your muscles to apply these modifications is the key to not sounding like a foreigner.

Since I've only learned the فصحى, I can't comment intelligently on any particular dialect. The consonants are a world beyond those used in English with the emphatic and guttural sounds, which simply need to be mastered and appreciated for what they are.

Despite this, there are only three phonemically distinct vowels in the language - an effect which makes loanwords hard to render correctly into Arabic. This leaves a lot of unclaimed territory in the map of vowels, meaning that you can substitute these for one of the three vowels when it lends to more easily pronouncing the surrounding consonants of a particular word. This is exactly what native speakers actually do, depending on their dialect. And it plays well into the hands of English speakers, who have more vowels than they can count (book, boot, boor, butt, bet, bat, bit, byte, bide, bead, bawl, bong - I use a different vowel sound for each, and I probably missed a few too).

Of course there is much more you need to know to "sound natural" - it requires the right pace, right vocabulary, right prepositions, right sentence structure, right elision - and this is all after you have the right sounds in place. That is something you can acquire only from experience, and experience requires constant repetition.

At the end of the day, just remember that kids will beat you at language acquisition any day of the week, but you're still smarter than them. Think like an adult, but act like a kid, and over time you may just catch up to them.

Ryan said...

I've recently started to learn arabic for similar reasons: Its sounds amazing, and its a language I can actually use in university (I'll admit I liked the "backwards" script as well, but thats not the best reason to learn a language).

I am always amazed by your accent in your videos, although I may not be an ideal judge of who sounds like an arab or not.

I've spoken french for 7 years now, and in the past few I've been mistaken for a native speaker from another region (of Canada), which I guess is similar to your situation. My approach was to repeat simple words or phrases in front of a mirror, to actually look like I mean what I say. I would usually start to say the words slowly, and eventually learn to say them as though speaking normally. That, along with speaking to native speakers all the time, taught me more than classes ever have.

I look forward to learning a new language despite all the new challenges. I can only hope to learn as quickly as you :D

Sapoona said...

Getting rid of an accent is what I was determined to do as soon as I landed in Canada. My reason was simple, I wanted to feel like I belong. I was born in canada and didn't wanna come back walking around with a canadian passport and an accent. I was able to completely and emphatically get rid of my Arabic accent in about 2 years. I first learned the vowels, which was a biggy because it was so different from what I've learned all my life. Learning english from Arabic speaking teachers. After the vowels, which was hard because I had to overcome stretching and elongating the vowels and speaking slower which was totally ridiculous and felt like I'm acting or pretending, so after the vowels I went for the Liaisons. which is the connections between the letters in consecutive words. And boy was that a progress!!! It matters a lot. And it is one of the things that makes me spot slight accents right off the bet. The intonation (speech music) came naturally with practice thoughout the 2 years. The last thing was the nasalizaiton. which basically was a huge step for me because it kinda made me change my voice completely. It was horrible at the begining and i was so concious of it, but it phased itself out and I was able to sound native 100%. Good luck.