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
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.
About the author
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.