by Owen Lee
Acquiring a genuine accent can be the ultimate icing on the cake in your journey to perfecting a language. While some accents are glaringly obvious like the American twang compared to the lyrical Irish accent, some are subtle and barely noticeable to the untrained ear. Eventually you may be able to notice these minor differences in accents between different regions and people. Mastering it can take longer, but can be very gratifying.
Let's compare the American and the British accent: although both are English, they are actually articulated using different parts of the mouths. Britons tend to use the front part of the mouth and the tip of the tongue, whereas Americans "push sounds together" with the back part of the mouth and to a large extent rely on the nose. That is why American English is to be said to sound "harder" (as opposed to "softer").
Each accent really is a system of pronouncing words in a standard manner. And the differences between them are best seen (or rather, heard) in the vowels. I used to tell my students who want to get a London Cockney accent to simply enlarge their mouth when pronouncing the "I" sound and they would immediately sound a lot more like some Londoners. Of course there are other little details which can only be acquired through active listening to the native speaker's speech.
Native speakers use different parts of their mouth and different facial muscles to get their characteristic sound. You probably have heard or noticed something about the French people. I'm not talking about their alleged romanticism (or snobbishness, depending on whether you're an admirer or not). It has something to do with the strong nasal sound. (Some even say that the French speak with their noses.)
There is some truth to it, though funny it may sound. To speak good French you have to first obtain the skill of "pushing" certain sounds through you nose.
The French are not the only ones with a unique speech style; each language makes use of different parts of your mouth and vocal chords.
Certain languages could be physically impossible for you to speak with a genuine accent due to some weak muscles of the mouth (which are never used to speak your mother tongue), but you can consciously develop certain muscles and breathing pattern to get very close to a native speaker.
At times you may find it really difficult to imitate a sound or to understand the way a native speaker is using his mouth. A very powerful technique I stumpled upon is what I call the "accent reverse engineering".
Observe how a native speaker speaks your own language. Chances are he/she will be speaking with an accent. This will leave you clues about how the native speaker uses his/her "vocal instruments", namely which part of the mouth he/she tends to use more, where he/she puts his tongue, how the air in his mouth is regulating, etc.
For example, if you are wondering how to speak German the way Germans do, just listen to how they speak English. You will notice that they pronounce English in an especially "breathy" way, accentuating all the "s" and "z". The British entertainer Sacha Baron Cohen does a very good job in his "Da Ali G Show", impersonating an Austrian. If possible, listen to how he pushes his tongue forward and tap on his palate.
Of course, performers on TV normally like to play into stereotypes and exaggerate accents for a comic effect. You should aim to sound convincing and not offensive.
Owen Lee is the author of a number of books about languages, including Ultimate Language Secrets - a guide to mastering foreign languages quickly and easily, and a number of other books. He is currently based in Singapore but was born in Shanghai. He speaks speaks Shanghainese, Mandarin, English, German, Dutch and Spanish.