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What’s in an accent?

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To truly speak a language fluently, do you need to have the accent too? It’s certainly something that even experienced interpreters can struggle with, particularly as there are so many dialects and regional accents for every language.

Anne Merritt, an English as a foreign language lecturer based in South Korea, writes in the Telegraph that the key to speaking a second language well lies in pronunciation, rather than accent. In fact, she says that battling to perfect an accent “sets you up for failure”.

She explains that it is notoriously difficult to learn an accent different from your own and speak it flawlessly. As any actor who has attempted a regional accent knows, it will almost always be criticised by the people who grew up speaking with that accent. Just ask Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, who attempted a Yorkshire accent in the 2011 movie One Day. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin said at the time that it was “impossible to tell” how good Hathaway’s performance in the film was, as every line of dialogue she speaks in it is “masked by one of the most honkingly rubbish Yorkshire accents you’ve ever heard”.

It’s what you say, not how you say it

Luckily, Ms Merritt says being able to speak another language complete with the authentic accent is not essential, and instead people should focus on pronouncing the words in the correct way. She gives five tips for this:

1) Listen and repeat

2) Learn the language’s stress patterns

3) Use a mirror to watch how your mouth moves

4) Practice words in sentences, as context can alter the pronunciation

5) Record your practice sessions and listen back to identify areas for improvement

Her advice for getting to grips with speaking a language fluently includes listening to songs and watching movies recorded in that language in order to mimic the way people speak. She also suggests listening to podcasts, as they can be played at a slower speed in order to hear in detail how a particular sound is made.

It has long been thought learning to speak in a perfect foreign accent is an impossible goal in adulthood. However, a study by linguistics professor at Canada’s Simon Fraser University Murray J Munro and linguist at the University of Alberta Tracy Derwing revealed it is possible to nail the pronunciation. The key is making the goal communicating clearly with people, rather than speaking with an authentic accent.

Time reports that the linguists suggested replacing the “nativeness principle” – the idea of mimicking an accent perfectly – with the “intelligibility principle”, where it’s how understood you are that guides your learning. The authors pointed out that with the correct pronunciation it is possible to understand people speaking a foreign language, even if their native accent is heavy.

“Learners guided by the intelligibility principle focus less attention on individual vowels and consonants, and more attention to the ‘macro’ aspects of language, such as general speaking habits, volume, stress, and rhythm,” Time explained. In order to best learn a language in a way that allows a person to speak it clearly, they should immerse themselves in that language so they can pick up the gist of how it is spoken when a mother tongue.

Speaking like a native

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Of course, there will always be an allure to learning accents, but this does not have to involve speaking in a different language. Amy Walker is an actress and singer from the US who has also made a name for herself teaching actors how to speak with different accents. Her website 21 Accents includes a series of films, including one in which she demonstrates 21 accents in just a few minutes.

Ms Walker notes that people attempting to learn a new accent should look for certain quirks in it that they can use as a touchstone. For instance, she says to perfect a standard British accent people should remember to be “clear” as the consonants are pronounced in a crisp way, while the vowels are pure. To master the Australian accent, her tip is to imagine chewing the sounds, while for a deep southern American accent the buzzword is “hang” as the ends of words are left to hang and the ‘Rs’ at the end of words are not pronounced.

What accents do you struggle with, and which are your favourite to speak?

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