Does having a good accent really matter? A few days ago I discussed this question with the popular YouTuber Matt Vs Japan for the I’m Learning Mandarin podcast. Matt recently caused a storm on Twitter when he wrote “Your accent in a language is a lot like physical attractiveness. Some try to argue it doesn’t matter, and in an ideal world it wouldn’t. But, deep down, we all know people judge you based on it.” I will post the full interview later this week. For now here is my take on whether Matt is right about the importance of accent in language learning: Is Matt Vs Japan Right That Your Accent Really Matters? – I'm Learning Mandarin
As long as you’re understood and not repulsive
It really depends on the context and what you want to do. I have noticed how you are more accepted in the community if you sound like the natives.
It may vary from country to country exactly how much effect it has but there is definitely an effect.
When I speak Spanish I frequently get “Wow your Spanish is awesome. I can tell you learned in Mexico, but there’s something about it. Where are you from?”. With some other people (usually non-Mexican Latinos) I have had “Wow you sound exactly like you’re from Northern Mexico but you don’t look Mexican at all where are you from?”
Also… I have a friend from the Southern US moved here when he was in middle school. He has some (small) traces left. He often gets “Oh you have a slight trace of an accent, are you from the States?” i.e. “not completely one of us” and that in spite of him moving here as a child so essentially fully Canadian as far as I’m concerned.
From what I can see having an English speaking accent (as in you sound like an English speaker from an English as a first language country) you are more or less “one of us” to English speakers. Otherwise you’re in the out-group.
Similarly in Spanish, if you have a Spanish accent from Spain or one of the Latin American countries you are “latino” and “one of us” to Spanish speakers. Otherwise you’re in the out-group.
I’m somewhere between the out-group and “one-of-us” when Speaking Spanish because I kinda sorta sound Mexican, I have cultural knowledge (as in massive exposure to telenovelas), have spent time in Northern Mexico and can understand jokes relevant to Mexican culture.
I’m definitely not in the in-group when I speak French and nowhere near the in-group when I speak Russian.
Here’s the thing…the chances of you getting to the point of sounding like a native once you’re past a certain age (let’s just say college for purposes of the argument) are pretty much 0%. The time and effort you would have to put in would be immense to try to eliminate an accent…particularly across the entire language. A native WILL know you are not a native of their country.
So whether it matters or not is pretty much irrelevant, because you’re likely not going to get to that point.
You can have a very distinct accent and still be understood. You can make grammatical mistakes and still be understood (even understood quite well).
That’s really what matters with communication. There isn’t a need to try and eliminate it entirely.
Whether you’re accepted is based on a ton of factors…the country, the area of the country, the individual you’re communicating with, YOURSELF and primarily…if you have anything in common.
Showering helps =D
So here’s an interesting thing Eric. I actually disagree with this partially.
If you learn from audio only before you start to learn to read you will not overlay to the same degree your native language’s pronunciation patterns on top of your pronunciation. So you can definitely reduce your accent massively by focusing purely on audio.
The hardest part is figuring out which sounds are kind of/sort of the same but not quite and then learning tongue placement etc.
For example: Russian has two “sh” sounds. One is the same as the English “sh” sound. The other has the tongue bent in the middle and kind of forced against the top of the mouth.
Spanish has a different “d” sound than English does. English “d” varies from tongue touching the top of the mouth to tongue touching just above the top teeth. Spanish “d” the tongue sticks out slightly between the top and bottom teeth as it touches the bottom of the top teeth. You can in fact learn exactly how to make all of these sounds perfectly by learning IPA pronunciation.
Then there is tonality and rhythm. You can listen to the tonality and rhythm of the language as it is spoken (the ups and downs and emphasis for example). You can practise this by doing Shadowing.
So to sum up: if you learn mainly by reading it is likely IMO that you will be unaware that these concepts exist and therefore not practise them.
If, however, you learn mainly by audio and shadowing you have some chance of sounding close to a native. Doing IPA will bring you across the finish line.
EDIT: for those who are interested in IPA - these wikipedia pages are very decent
Money matters, in the end, it’s probably a better choice to put your time in. If you have a lot of money, you’re attractive, your accent is exotic and your dog is a good boy. If you haven’t any, well, sir, let me see your ID or driver’s license.
In some cases, it depends on the language you’re learning, in other cases it may be the purpose (as some others already stated).
For example, Georgians, especially outside of Tbilisi, will be usually either very confused or very pleased when a foreigner can actually say just one complete and meaningful sentence in Georgian. Bonus points are given for correct grammar. Pronounciation doesn’t seem to be too important, except for elderly Georgian men, who have no patience to listen to foreigners
Everyone has his/her own goal.
When learning English, I don’t care the accent, my goal is reading textbooks and papers.
When learning Japanese, my goal is to understand the manga and h-game
When learning Hungarian, my goal is to have a perfect native accent…
I think a bit of accent is cute, but too much accent may makes you looked retarded.
There is actually a very famous youtuber in Taiwan imitating accents of people from different countries speaking Mandarin.
And most people think those accents are cute.
I don’t know the answer to this. For me I’m working backwards from my experience so I can’t say. If I was forced to take a guess I’d say at least a month or more. Maybe even several months.
I have only barely noticed in the last month that I seem to have internalized the Russian sounds. It’s been ten months.
Was I there earlier? I can’t say because I haven’t been asking myself “am I ready to read?”
This varies. For me in Russian, I’ve started working through the Mini Stories ( listen and read, work through the meaning sentence by sentence playing the native audio for each sentence, then listen and read) and I’m learning to read with the Cyrillic alphabet with Russian sounds.
For me in Swahili, I need to listen a lot more to be able to read even a few sentences because it’s written in the Latin alphabet.
In Hebrew, I started learning traditionally, and it took me years to hear the way they pronounce the r sound (in the throat) and I still have to put effort to hear it correctly in my head while reading.
I wholeheartedly agree that one needs to listen to get accuracy. I’m not sure they necessarily need to start with it. i.e. I think one starts whenever they start to try and produce the language, but it’s a constant refinement. It’s not going to be correct to start, even if they start straight from listening. I could listen to Spanish with them rolling r’s all day long and I still can’t do it right =D. It’s not because I may have read something first, it just takes much practice to do certain things.
Babies and children certainly don’t pronounce things correctly to start and all they get initially is audio. However, the constant refinement process of listening and practicing to produce is what makes the pronunciation better. For native and non native, having the word in writing in front of you can also help you nail down the sound better…if only to understand what you’re hearing better. i.e. you might be hearing something, but it’s actually something different. You might need to have them repeat it a few times just to understand what the heck they are saying, but if you see the word you go “ahhh”. Now for you to produce that word or sound you may still need to practice it to refine it, but at least you’re still not hearing the incorrect sound altogether.
You’re right. Listening by itself isn’t enough. It is way better than trying to guess how it’s pronounced based on reading it from your own language’s pronunciation, though.
Which is why I mentioned IPA: If you practise learn IPA you will be able to pronounce the Spanish R and pretty much all the other sounds in whichever language you have an IPA guide for.
And yes, you absolutely need to babble like a baby to get it right.
On reading: my bias comes from watching all the people here in Canada who can read and write excellent English but whose pronunciation is exactly how they would expect it to be pronounced in their own language. To “prove” this, I guess we need an academic study but in my own experience I know exactly how Spanish speakers pronounce things and so when I hear them say e.g. sherrrrs I know they are trying to say “cheers” but are layering their own pronunciation on top. Similarly “fi dolla” is because Spanish drops the end letter. They are definitely layering on top IMO. And since you can’t get the sound from the written word my hypothesis is that they are basing it on how the word looks to them. Thus my conclusion is that reading cannot lead to correct pronunciation without listening. I concede that you could probably read first then listen later but I suspect that some of the sounds that are close enough to be understood will never bother to be corrected by the reader whereas if you learn the sounds as they are spoken first then the learner will automatically say them correctly regardless of how the word is written.
Anyhow, good discussion as usual.
I have something to add to this, but without any takeaways, because I’m not sure what they are exactly.
Before I’ve come to LingQ and even before my beginner kind of “I like dogs” course, for some months I followed advice of my friend who immigrated to the USA long ago. Once he said to me, that he has learned English mostly just by listening to podcasts and roughly after 10 months he was able to understand 90% of that. There was the DiggNation podcast at the time, created by one of the pioneers of social media on the Internet and owners of Digg.com.
Honestly, I don’t know how he has managed to do this purely by listening, because I failed in the understanding part. Probably he missed on something in his explanations of that approach But I was trying it for 4-5 months, 4-6 hours on the loop, mostly without paying too much attention to that noise.
But by the time I started to learn in the more or less traditional way and then through LingQ immersion, I could hear what pronouciation sounds like English and what doesn’t. I don’t know how to put it more clearly, but I it’s like I had already those syllables, vowels, rythm and melody etc. And it took little time to get this internal “voice” that sounds right as if some native speaker in my head is narrating what I read. Still my mouth and tongue can’t keep up after it and I have to develop muscle memory for that, but I can check on myself with that “voice” without any other reference.
Do the Canadian “friends” practice trying to speak with “proper” pronunciation? Or do they just not even care? Plus, if they are communicating in English with themselves, they may be getting extra “negative” reinforcement from each other. Also, do they have a “desire” to speak more properly? If not, they may never change, regardless of whether they started with pronunciation and audio before reading.
BTW, what is “proper” English? There are so many accents, even if you just include United States, England, Australia, Canada? Or even just in those countries themselves.
There’s plenty of people born in the United States that say “fi dolla” =). You’ve got New York accent, various accents across the country. You can hardly understand two native Louisianans from the bayou.
And if we go with the definition of “proper” English from two well educated people, one in the U.S. and one in England, you have entirely different pronunciations. i.e. what should an English learner even strive for? I’m sure there are “standard” U.S. pronunciation and “standard” UK pronunciation notions, but as more people speak English these “standards” kind of blur necessarily, it seems.
Back to the fundamental argument. Would it help to start from an audio perspective first? I don’t know, but I think as long as there is a desire to improve and with enough listening and practice I think it doesn’t matter what comes first in the end. I think practice and desire to improve is really what ultimately dictates the end result.
While I understand the position that there is no one standard English, that there are multiple standard Englishes does not mean that anything goes.
It’s absolutely fair to say that someone e.g. in Canada can’t claim that someone speaking grammatically correct English but with a different regional accent (say southern US or Ireland or whatnot) is not correct English they absolutely can say that someone speaking with a non-English-speaking-foreign-accent doesn’t have an English speaking accent.
The point I was trying to make is that there is a distinction between the in-group i.e. English regional accent and the out-group i.e. Foreign non-English-as-a-first-language accent.
I’m not defending this or attacking it, I’m stating it as a fact only.
“i.e. what should an English learner even strive for?”
A learner of any language should strive to be understood without making it difficult or uncomfortable for his interlocutor.
Henry Kissinger, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Slovenian guy I work with, all have noticeable foreign accents that are nonetheless easy to understand and perhaps even pleasant to hear – unlike the fellow with a much thicker accent that lacks or misapplies several English sounds not found in or produced differently in his native language. That it works the same going the other direction goes without saying.
Which “native” accent when there are many? One of the primary ones, of course. Whereas anyone can understand Tom Scott’s English accent effortlessly, if he has to put English subtitles on a video shot in the far reaches of Scotland, then that may not be the pronunciation most learners should strive for. (Landing at the only airport that's also a public beach - YouTube)
Acceptance that you’ll never sound like a native is no excuse to not work to learn how the native sounds of your target language are produced, nor to fail to try to make your speech as effortless to understand as possible.
For myself and my Russian learning, I cringe when I hear a thick American accent coming from someone else, and it’s harder for me, an American, to understand. My own accent, though perfect in my head, suffers much when I open my mouth. Nonetheless, I learned to produce a properly trilled “r”, to more-or-less properly pronounce “ы”, to keep my "o"s broad and not diphthong-y, to properly pronounce “мать” and “мат” differently (!), and other nuances.