“Once you live in America for a while, you will pick up the accent.” That’s what they say, but is it true? Some people pick it up just by living here. But others have been in the U.S. for years, and they still have a thick accent. So, what does it take to develop the...
“Once you live in America for a while, you will pick up the accent.” That’s what they say, but is it true? Some people pick it up just by living here. But others have been in the U.S. for years, and they still have a thick accent. So, what does it take to develop the American accent?
“That’s not the way we say it”
It’s more than just learning English
You could speak with perfect grammar and pronunciation and still get those confused looks or have to repeat yourself. Adapting your accent to the patterns of specific regions can help you avoid all the looks and repetition.
Even people from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, or other native English speakers change their accents to be better understood when they move to America. People who come from non-English speaking countries have all the more reason to adopt the accent. So, how can they do it?
How to change your accent
It’s a big project, but it becomes much more manageable if you break it down into smaller things that you do every day. So, what are the habits you can develop so that you can start to see change happen over time? Follow these five steps and try to do them every day.
1- Catch the details
At first, it can seem overwhelming when you become aware of all the differences between how you say things and how locals say them. But you have to push yourself beyond the general recognition that you have an accent. And frankly, most people won’t help you much with the specifics. If you ask them what you said differently, they usually say something like, “I don’t know, you just have an accent,” or maybe, “Well, that’s not the way we say it.”
The best thing to do is enlist a coach’s help in an American accent training program. They can help you identify the details that make a difference. Professional accent trainers can hear things other people can’t and tell you precisely what your issues are. That’s where you can go to get the precise feedback you need. But, of course, with or without the help of an accent coach, you need to train your ear to hear those differences as you speak with people every day.
2- Diagnose the issues
After a misunderstanding, ask yourself, “Why did that happen?”. Take stock of the words and phrases you used. Which word was it that caused the problem? If they repeat it back to you, what was the difference between the way you said it and the way they said it? Which sound was at issue? Was it a vowel or a consonant?
Sometimes, it seems that people are just too picky, but you can use all these details to your advantage. You may not remember every single correction. But, the more you collect, the closer you will be to your goal.
3- Look for patterns
Gradually gather and piece together the clues from the feedback you receive. Then, you will start to see the patterns. For example, once you understand the right pronunciation of a particular word such as “good,” think of more words that rhyme with it (i.e. “would,” “should,” “could,” “stood,” “Hollywood,” etc.). Practice all of these words together to use your newly found sound in different places.
You may also notice that you have similar difficulties in related sounds. For instance, the words “road,” “rude,” and “round” have different vowels, but they all have the same “w” sound at the end of the vowel. So if you focus on correcting that one thing, you can see results in many different words at once.
4- Imitate good accents
Not everyone is going to speak up and correct you. In fact, most people won’t, especially if they are your friends, family, or colleagues that you see every day. But you can get even more details and information from listening to the way others talk. Compare your pronunciation with theirs. Try to listen for differences in tongue and mouth movement, voice inflection, and even the words they choose. Pay special attention to the people who have an accent that you like. Try to imitate the way they speak.
5- Correct yourself
Self-correction is the most crucial step that leads to long-term change. Catch your mistakes and correct them. Maybe you realize that you pronounced a word wrong after it came out. Don’t hesitate to repeat it more clearly. That can help clarify any misunderstandings and help you remember the right way next time. You may also feel a mispronunciation coming out mid-word. It may feel like you are stuttering if you correct it in the moment, but don’t worry. That’s all part of the process.
As you follow these five steps, you may notice that your speech becomes more deliberate, giving you the impression that it lacks fluency. You have to crawl before you walk, though, and walk before you run. Slowly but surely, you will become more comfortable with your newly acquired accent, and your fluency and naturalness will improve too.
Constancy is key. Write those five steps down somewhere visible to remind yourself to keep doing them every day. Take all the help you can get, too. Sign up for accent training and apply what you learn each and every day. Keep your ears open, and keep learning!