Accent - sometimes you can be too good! Image by Betty Miller from FreeImages.com

Great accent, shame about the rest!

How is your accent in the language you’re learning? I’m pretty pleased with mine. In fact, I think it might be a little too good.

Before the eye-rolling starts, let me explain. This isn’t an embarrassing lapse in modesty and perspective. The fact is, accent is one of the things I really strive to perfect very early on in my learning. The trouble is, a very good accent can give a false impression of general overall proficiency, even if you’re not quite there yet.

There’s Norway you’re Norwegian…

It’s something that has cropped up plenty of times in my language adventures. This weekend, I spent a couple of nights in lovely Trondheim, Norway. Now, my Norwegian isn’t bad at all. It’s one of the languages I immerse myself in most, watching Norwegian TV, getting my news from Norwegian sources and reading fiction in Norwegian. I’d say I hover around a B1/2 – an achievement I’m proud of and not bad for someone who doesn’t live in the country.

That said, Norwegian is a patchwork of sometimes vastly different dialects. I don’t always cope with that diversity, especially when I come across a new variety. And Trøndersk, of which Trondheim’s dialect is a prime example, is particularly unique.

The sticking point is this: I have worked on getting a solid Oslo pronunciation under my belt. Because of that, when I rattle off a request in a hotel or shop situation, I sound like I have a pretty solid grasp of a colloquial, spoken variety of the language. When I get the reply in full-on local dialect, I get that gut-turning feeling of the rug being pulled from under my feet.

Yes, who hasn’t felt that when learning a language? But when you make a special effort to sound like a native, it can compound the problem.

Great accent – shame about the listening skills!

Language heptathletes

This is, of course, the nature of language learning. It is a multi-skill discipline. In effect, we are all heptathletes competing across reading, writing, speaking, listening and other combined events at our own linguistic Olympics. Just like a heptathlon, every one of us performs differently across those skills. Accent is one of those areas that some struggle with, but others take to straight away.

Focusing on accent early on – as your special event, so to speak – is no bad thing by any means. For many of us, it is part of the fun of language learning. It’s all about trying to pass, attempting to shed the baggage of your first language background, trying on a different culture for size, the giddy thrill of let’s pretend. A great accent means hearing the sounds of a different place, a different people, a different world leave your lips. For me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of learning a language.

Maybe you are a natural mimic and love to imitate foreign language sounds from the get-go. It could be, like me, that you are fascinated by dialects and accents as a route to the authentic heart and soul of a target language culture. Perhaps you’ve worked hard on accent-improving techniques like shadowing.

But an accent-heavy focus might leave you scrambling to keep up your first, amazing impressions when you speak to locals abroad. The problem is partly one of over-rehearsal. As actors will confirm, you can prepare your character to death. You know your part so rigidly that there is zero room for flexibility. Learning to speak your part too convincingly can leave you little time to focus on being prepared for the unpreparable.

The answer? Keep loving accent and pronunciation work, but introduce some systematic wider focus into your study to redress the imbalance.

Perfect accent – with a side of syntax

The best kind of resources for skill-balancing are those that take a blended approach. They provide plenty of speech modelling to keep our accent ambitions fulfilled. But they also feature content that trains variable syntax alongside accent.

Personally, I find mass sentence methods like Glossika incredibly helpful. Glossika drills native-speed pronunciation through a bank of hundreds of well-formed, colloquial sentences. Crucially, it includes stylistic variants on a theme that might trip you up in natural speech. The Scottish Gaelic version, for example, exposes you to not only “càit a bheil …?” (where is …) but also the shortened, more colloquial form “cà’il …?” amongst other alternatives.

For an even tighter focus on listening skills, it pays to keep your ear to the ground for new techniques. For a start, there is some excellent advice on listening coming from language teachers in schools, so it pays to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the teacher circuit. Many of their confidence-improving techniques for young students are as applicable to us as individual learners.

Let it go…

Finally – and this might be the most drastic and hard-to-swallow piece of advice for all who love working on their accent – is to deliberately try not to be so impressive. Let a little of your true self colour how you speak a foreign language. Cultivate a ‘learner accent’.

If you want to keep the fun stakes high, maybe even try a different foreign accent within your language – German with a French accent, anyone? Have fun being non-native! It’s still an accent, right?

What are your experiences with accent training in language learning? Let us know in the comments!

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