There’s a disease going around language learners. It’s a serious affliction, causing sweating, racing hearts, tied tongues, and in severe cases renders sufferers unable to speak.
I call it “Accent Anxiety”. It’s the ongoing obsession with “improving” or “reducing” your accent when you learn a new language.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about pronunciation. Neither am I saying that imitating a native accent is pointless or impossible. On the contrary, with time and intensive practice, it is possible to imitate an accent very well indeed.
However, being overly concerned with accent reduction or training can be counter productive. It is also unnecessary for everyday conversation or communication.
Just imagine that you have spent years mastering a British accent. You sound so British, even the British think you are native. However, there’s a downside to this. When you make a grammar mistake – and you WILL – they would think that you are a poorly educated British person, rather than a foreigner with amazingly good second-language skills. They will also be much more offended if you accidentally break a cultural rule that a British person should know and follow. You would actually gain more respect, and a bit more patience, if you spoke English well but with a touch of your native accent.
Honestly, most British people find a little bit of a foreign accent interesting and, in many cases, rather attractive. While being a native speaker is an accident of birth, being a second-language speaker is a testament to your hard work and intelligence. So be proud of that accent!
Native Speakers Have Accents
Another point to remember is that there is no “correct” accent. Technically, the “British Accent” is also divided into many different accents. These are an important part of our identity and culture, and most of us would be very upset if someone suggested that we “reduce” our accent. They vary wildly: we have words that are unique to our region, we pronounce the same words differently and words often have more than one “correct” pronunciation, and we have different ways of pacing and stressing our sentences. Unlike in some languages, intonation is often very changeable, as some Brits speak in a flatter tone, while other accents are more “sing-song”. Despite all this variety, we can usually understand each other without any significant difficulty.
Don't believe me? Watch this playlist on our YouTube channel, which is a collection of different British accents (note - use the forward arrows at the bottom to skip to the next video in the list).
As a result of all this variety, English is very flexible when it comes to pronunciation and accents. What is more crucial to understanding and universal to all native speakers is our grammar and a core set of vocabulary that almost all native speakers know and use.
Let’s Get Technical
Of course, a certain amount of pronunciation training is vital. English phonology is pretty complex – British English is generally thought to have around 24 consonant sounds, 12 simple vowels and 7 diphthongs (or long vowel sounds). American English has fewer vowel sounds but is otherwise quite similar. Although other aspects of our pronunciation vary by accent and context, our phonology is fairly consistent.
Have a look at this very useful chart with recordings:
Learning the International Phonetic Alphabet is useful, but if you use this helpful chart you can check the sounds if you forget what each symbol means.
If you can learn to pronounce all of these sounds correctly or approximate one or two of them with a sound close to it in your own language, your English will be clear enough for anyone to understand. Most English accents have just one or two sounds that are different from “standard” phonology, which makes it possible to understand what they say. Therefore, you should aim for a similar level of “deviation” from the standard.
For example, consider the word: “bath”. A British speaker would say /bɑːθ/, whereas an American speaker would say /bæθ/. However, the long vowel can vary slightly in different British accents without affecting understanding. In London, some speaker
s actually say /bɑːf/, swapping the difficult “th” (θ) for the similar “f” (f) sound. Generally, this approximation wouldn’t make it hard for others to recognise the word and understand what has been said. The only time the swap can really cause problems is when it makes “three” and “free” sound the same, which can lead to some funny misunderstandings in a few contexts.
As this example demonstrates, switching one or two sounds for another is often absolutely fine. Most listeners will know which you meant from the context. If the rest of your words are clear the mispronunciation will cause only a moment’s amusement. Just laugh and move on.
Stop Worrying So Much!
In conclusion, stop worrying so much about your accent. Instead, focus on speaking in a way that can be easily understood. Concentrate on basic pronunciation, speaking with feeling, high-frequency vocabulary and using correct grammar. Be proud of your accent – it shows how far you have come and how much effort you have put into learning a second language!