There are lots of reasons why you might think having a good accent in your new language is important. Maybe you fear people you speak to will think less of you, perhaps the sound of one of your fellow countrymen trying to speak it makes you shudder, or you might even enjoy the thrill of being able to pass off as an incognito non-native who changes nationality at the flick of a tongue. Whatever your reason, pronunciation is a question that comes up time and time again in language learning, and is certainly on a lot of people’s minds.
I’m the kind of language learner who thinks pronunciation is important. When I was younger and more able to shape my mouth any way I wanted, I think it was more important. As I’ve grown older and more set in my ways, it’s become less of a priority as I’m now more comfortable sounding like a foreigner some of the time. But my main motivation throughout my language-learning career has basically always been that I just thought different accents sounded cool.
Growing up bilingually gave me a practical chance to experience the benefits of sounding native in more than one language. As a child I always loved the fact that I was Greek in Greece and English in England. Good pronunciation was part and parcel for me of belonging to both countries. I didn’t like feeling like a foreigner. I liked even less being treated like one. I quickly caught on to the fact that judgement is passed as soon as you utter your first words. Pull it off, and you’ll be treated like a local. Stumble or stutter and suddenly the English menus are out, the prices soar, and you’ll be greeted with that patronising smile that monoglot Anglophones encounter everywhere, which means “I can speak your language but you can’t speak mine.”
So with the languages I went on to learn I was determined to one day feel as at home with them as I did with my native Greek and English. I worked hard at it, listening carefully to every minuscule difference between every sound and pitch, and in many cases I managed to pull it off. Speaking different languages then became even more fun as I discovered I could slip by undetected in supermarkets, shops, restaurants and cafes. All of a sudden I was a Brit no more. But what I also learnt was a very important lesson about different cultures. To my fascination, the service I received when I spoke with a convincing accent was enormously different to what I got when I spoke with a foreign accent or lapsed into English, but not always in a good way. Every country had its own conventions about manners, body language, paying, and almost everything really. I loved reciting my ‘alstublieft’s and ‘dank u wel’s in Dutch as we took turns to exchange money, purchases, change and receipts, as we have nothing anything like as scripted as that in English. Experiencing cultural differences in this way became a real motivating factor to go on to learn more languages and see how things changed as I made my way across the globe.
Another reason I’ve always worked hard on my accent though is because I’ve found it to be a good compliment catcher. At the early stages of the learning process, when my knowledge of vocab and grammar are close to non-existent, people seem impressed by a convincing accent in the little I do know. They’re also pleased that you’re making such an effort to ‘sound native’, which helps to make your learning experience very positive. Confidence builds fast, and I find myself motivated by the thought of how good everything will sound when I have learnt it properly and have a good vocabulary in the advanced stages.
But occasionally things would go wrong. My cover would be blown, and it would be difficult to rescue the situation. When I didn’t understand something or made a grammar slip, the results were disastrous. People couldn’t get their heads around how on earth this supposed German used the wrong auxiliary verb to form the past tense, or had never heard of a plastic bag. What does he mean he doesn’t know what a loyalty card is? And why is he making a fuss about paying the Pfand price on coke cans? Any social faux pas I made were just as harshly cracked down on. Unable to hide behind my eccentric Britishness, if I said or did something wrong I would come across as rude rather than just not in the know, and get a bad response. These things would really knock my confidence, and give me a negative experience of speaking languages. There are just times when you’re abroad and you want everyone to understand you’re not from there, so you don’t really know what on earth is going on. You’re probably going to offend somebody at some point and you just want them to know you didn’t mean to. Having a detectable foreign accent is one easy way to do that.
So sounding authentic can be nice, but you really don’t need to fret if you can’t manage it. Every language learner’s real priority should be maximising comprehension, and comprehensibility. I’m always delighted when my new students tell me that accent isn’t a priority for them, because it means we can focus on actually learning the language and progressing fast. Besides, there are fields of pronunciation apart from accent that can easily be worked on, and are crucial for making yourself understood. Always listen carefully to intonation (where sentences go up and down at different points), and stress (which syllable of a word you emphasise), and make sure you’re getting it right.
So whatever accent you choose, make sure you speak in a way that’s familiar to a native speaker. Work on intonation and stress to be sure to make yourself understood, regardless of whether you roll your ‘r’s or whistle your ‘th’s. Because above all, communication is what learning languages is really all about.