What is an accent?

An accent is the carryover of sounds from the speaker’s original language to a new language. As infants, we all have the ability to understand language. If we are born with the required speech mechanisms, then we have the capability to learn to speak any language.

The reasons we end up speaking our native language is due to our experiences and reinforcement. The sounds a baby hears and the speech patterns they are exposed to are those that they develop. Soon the baby gains the fine motor skills and control they need to create the sounds themselves. The infant begins by babbling and playing with sounds. Soon they are ready to say simple vowel/consonant combinations. That is why perhaps “mama” and “dada” are typically their first words. They babble that combination, and the big reaction of people hearing those sounds, reinforces their efforts. By eighteen months, they are able to produce about twenty meaningful words and understand around fifty words. Babies, truly, have the ultimate language immersion experience. In order to get any control over their environment, babies must learn the language that they are surrounded by for nearly twenty four hours a day.

Of course, the second language learner doesn't have this advantage. Second language learners rarely are immersed into the second language every single moment of their day. Even if you are currently living in an English speaking country and attending English as a Second Language classes, you may be able to converse in your first language with friends and family at other times. This is especially true in the United States, which is a county of immigrants. It is usually easy to find someone there that speaks your first language.

Another factor that you are dealing with as a second language learner is the “expectation issue.” For several years you have heard a speech pattern, and there is a a current expectation of what you will hear when others speak. You are predicting what sounds will come next, based on your subconscious understanding of language. Part of your filter of understanding is grounded in your accent. It is necessary to break through this barrier to really understand and actively listen to what others are speaking.

“To listen is to be told,” and I don’t mean that in an existential way. I mean that if you can’t hear the way the sounds are made, then you can’t learn to make the sounds. Maybe that is why ETS added speaking and listening sections to the TOEFL. The two skills of speaking and listening are closely linked.

Once you hear your new language’s sounds, you have to add them to your own phonetic library in your brain. Your phonetic library is the knowledge and understanding of how to manufacture each sound or phoneme in your current understood language(s). In order to properly learn English, you will need to add some “Yank” sounds that are not within your current language’s sound system.

One way to target the sounds you need to learn is by first recording yourself reading two or three sentences in English. Then listen to the recording. Write down exactly what you hear yourself saying. Do not write down what you meant to say, but actually the sounds you made. An example is if the word was “they”, did you say “day?” How was what you read, said, and wrote different from the original? I’d suggest sticking with consonants at first, because the variations are easier to pinpoint.

If you really want to perfect your pronunciation, it is best to go to a speech therapist, rather than a nurse or ESL teacher. Speech therapists are trained in physiology of the speech mechanisms and musculature. They understand what's involved in manufacturing most every sound and are trained to spot and work with articulation issues. Although, an accent isn’t a disability, they do have similar characteristics. Once the speech therapist understands the difficulty the person is experiencing in articulating specific sounds, the speech therapist can show the correct way to make the sound. When dealing with an accent, the speech therapist can hear what the person is doing differently and describe a way to make the correct sound, so it approximates the standard.

The most important advice I can give you is to keep practicing. At first, it may seem as you're exaggerating when you “speak with a yank accent.” However, I am certain that the native English speakers around you will not even notice. They will just be impressed with your great diction!