Can you change your accent to sound like a native English speaker?
That’s a big question among English learners. There’s this idea that to be truly fluent in a language, you need to pronounce every word like a native speaker, with no trace of your own accent.
Let’s start by saying that there is nothing wrong with having a foreign accent. The most important thing about language learning is that you’re understood, not flawless.
But we get it: You have your reasons for wanting to shed your accent. So in this post, we’ll answer the question, “Can you lose an accent?”
What is an accent?
In general terms, an accent is simply the way you pronounce words. Accents are usually specific to a group of people, like those in a region or a country.
There are two basic categories:
- A foreign accent: An English-speaking person communicating in Spanish, for example.
- The way you pronounce your own language: For instance, someone from France will use different French pronunciation than someone from Québec.
This just goes to show you that, technically, everyone has an accent!
What’s an English accent?
Keep in mind that saying you want to sound like a native English speaker is a very broad statement. There are many different types of English accents. The largest groups of native English speakers are American, British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, South African and Indian English. And within those countries, accents vary widely. There isn’t one “correct” accent among them.
Can you change your accent?
The good news is that yes, it’s possible to change your accent.
The not-so-good news is that it’s incredibly challenging. Here’s why:
The sounds you hear as a baby quickly become locked into your brain because you perceive them to be the most important ones for communication. Eventually, your brain decides that you’ve learned all the sounds you need to know, and you start using those core sounds as you learn to speak. All other sounds that have nothing to do with your language are disregarded. According to one study, by 10 months old, babies no longer respond to or even notice sounds that don’t exist in their own language.
Although children are usually able to change their accents easily until around twelve years old, things get tricky after that. The older you are when you learn a new language, the harder it is to perfect the accent. But, as we mentioned, it’s not impossible!
How to change your accent
Changing your accent takes a high level of commitment—you’ll want to practice consistently, consistently at least an hour every day. How long you’ll have to stick to this schedule depends a lot on your skill level when you begin. Here are some tips!
Master your listening skills
As we mentioned above, the reason it’s such a challenge to change your accent is that you don’t recognize the sounds that aren’t present in your own language. Strengthen your skills with a variety of listening activities so you can begin to correctly identify English sounds and pinpoint how they differ from those in your first language.
Repeat and record
Incorporate English podcasts, TV shows, YouTube videos, etc. Listen to one sentence at a time, stop the recording and try to repeat it with the same intonation as the speakers. Listen again to check how you did. Repeat the sentence until you’re fairly confident you’ve got it, then move on to the next. As you’re doing this, it’s also a good idea to record yourself so you know exactly what you sound like (you probably sound different out loud than you do in your head).
Know the specifics
In order to truly change your accent, you need to learn the specifics of pronunciation. Just remember that these will vary depending on the type of English accent you’re aiming for.
- Mouth shape and posture: Think about the shape your mouth should make for each sound and how wide you should open it.
- Tongue placement: Know where and how to position your tongue—on the roof of the mouth, against the teeth, etc.
- Vowel sounds: Understand how long or short a vowel sound should be in a particular word.
- Consonant sounds: The way you pronounce consonants can really affect whether or not others can understand you.
- Syllable and word stress: Make sure you stress the correct syllable(s) in a word and the right word(s) in a sentence; getting these wrong is a common error for language learners.
- Melody: Get to know how English speakers use volume and pitch to convey meaning.
Whenever you’re doing pronunciation practice, take it a little slower than you normally would. Sure, the goal is to speak at a natural pace—and you’ll get there! But to improve your English accent, try deliberately pronouncing every single syllable in a word to get your mouth and tongue used to the correct positions. Look in a mirror as you’re doing this so you can correct any errors in your mouth and tongue posture.
Changing your accent takes time and effort
Trying to figure out how to get rid of your accent can be discouraging if you don’t know where to start. Fortunately, while there’s no quick fix, there are ways to reach your goal of sounding more like a native English speaker!
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.