-Salma Hayek, interview for O Magazine
If an award-winning actress had this kind of reaction upon moving to the United States, you know that you are not alone!
When non-native speakers say that they don’t speak English very well, they’re not usually talking about the structure of the language, they’re talking about how they sound when speaking.
Learning a language in your home country, you very rarely discuss accent and pronunciation.
Arriving to Argentina in 2001 was a huge shock for me. I had never really realized that I needed to move my mouth in different ways in order to create the sounds of Spanish.
At the beginning of your language journey, you’re concerned with so many other things: how to speak correctly with good grammar, how to use interesting vocabulary, how to structure your words in a logical way!
Even when I’ve taught from English textbooks, there is usually very little focus on accent.
Pronunciation is included as a fun activity, rather than an essential part of communicating effectively.
When most of us learn another language, we don’t learn how to not have an accent.
This is why you may be completely fluent in English, but still need help uncovering the bad habits you have with the way you move your mouth.
This is just part of the process. We are always refining the way we speak.
Why Do You Need to Speak English More Clearly?
A question for you: Why do you need to speak English more clearly? 🤔
Your specific needs will guide the accent reduction process.
When you start reducing your accent, you want to focus on the aspect that is most likely to get you results.
Consider the following:
- Where do you speak English – in your native country, while traveling internationally, or living in an English-speaking country?
- How does the way you speak English affect your career opportunities – or your personal life?
- Do you live any part of your life in English?
The process of reducing your accent will vary depending on your answers to these questions.
If you only occasionally interact with English-speaking colleagues who are visiting or living in your country, you want to focus most of your attention on speaking clearly.
In this case, communicating your meaning is much more important than pronouncing each word perfectly.
But if you live in or plan to move to an English-speaking country, your focus is going to be different.
While you still need to focus on clear communication, you have an added challenge: your accent affects how people perceive you.
At times, having an accent can be a distraction – even just having to explain where you’re from can be exhausting! 😣
Improving how you sound can actually help you increase your confidence and improve how you feel in your everyday life.
When you feel frustrated by your accent on a daily basis, you’re much more likely to take action and do something about it.
What Do Native Speakers Think About Having an Accent?
Let me be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with having an accent.
Your accent is part of your identity and you should be proud of where you come from.
The main reason I suggest improving your accent is because it will help you people understand you.
You want to make sure your message and meaning are clear.
In my experience, most Americans are completely used to interacting with non-native English speakers, especially in urban areas.
If you meet someone who is unkind to you because of your accent, this reflects on them as a person, not you.
Working towards a more natural-sounding accent is primarily about improving your confidence.
Improving your accent can make a difference in how much you participate in conversations at social gatherings and discussions at work.
When you trust that people will understand you, you won’t let your accent hold you back.
You may also feel like you fit in better and that you belong in your new home.
Defining Which Elements of Your Accent You Need to Work On
Many non-native English speakers share that they want to improve their pronunciation, change their accent, or sound more like a native speaker. The words vary, but the desire is the same.
But we need to be more precise: what does this actually mean to you?
As you’ll see, there are four key elements of a natural-sounding accent:
- The sounds of English (pronunciation of consonants and vowels)
- The rhythm of English (word and sentence stress)
- The music of English (intonation)
- The flow of English (thought groups, linking, and connected speech)
While speaking clearly and communicating effectively should always be your top priorities, I encourage you to get even more specific about your accent goals.
You’re busy, and you should focus your limited time and energy on getting the results you need.
I’ve found that many people spend too much time on the sounds of English, and not enough time on the rhythm, music, and melody of English.
The flow of English starts to, well, flow naturally once you’re consistently producing the rhythm and music of English.
As you read through these elements, ask yourself this question:
What do I personally need to work on and why?
1) The Sounds of English: Pronunciation of Vowels and Consonants
Depending on your native language, the sounds of English may feel quite unfamiliar to you.
There are certain consonants and vowels that we use that simply may not exist in your native language!
For example, the “th” sound is very challenging for most non-native speakers.
And there are many more vowel sounds in English than in other languages.
If you try to pronounce words in English exactly as they would sound in your native language, you’re definitely going to have an accent.
When most people talk about improving pronunciation, they are referring to the articulation of consonants and vowels.
Articulation involves the way you move your mouth, tongue, teeth, jaw, and lips to produce the sounds of English.
As you’ll see, the sounds of English are only one part of sounding more like a native speaker (and they’re definitely not the most important part).
To improve the way you say certain sounds, head to Google and search for “common pronunciation mistakes” and your native language.
You’ll find lists of sounds that are likely challenging for you, too.
I suggest you use this list as a guideline and troubleshoot the sounds one-by-one.
For example, as a non-native speaker of Spanish, I have learned to roll my “r” and pronounce the “d” sound in order to improve my accent.
But if you only focus on the articulation of sounds, you’ll probably get stuck in the accent reduction process.
Retraining your mouth to say these sounds differently takes time and practice.
Just like lifting weights or training for a sport, you need repetition and practice to make serious progress.
I encourage you to work on other aspects of your accent to start sounding more like an American.
You can always come back to the sounds later – and improving these other elements will actually give your mouth more time to fully articulate consonants and vowels.
2) The Rhythm of English: Word and Sentence Stress
If you’ve been hanging around my corner of the internet, you know that I’m obsessed with word and sentence stress.
As far as I’m concerned, word and sentence stress accounts for 65% of a natural-sounding accent.
To understand the rhythm of English, you need to pay attention to how our voices go up and down as we speak.
This recognizable beat draws extra attention to the most important words in the sentence.
Native speakers expect you to signal which words they need to really listen to through volume, pitch, and syllable length.
Except they don’t even know they’re doing it. 😝
We don’t learn stress by studying it; we just naturally do it when we start speaking.
This is why your English speaking friends probably won’t be able to identify why your speech sounds off.
3) The Music of English: Intonation
Truth be told, most people aren’t even aware that intonation varies between languages.
Just like the rhythm of English, we produce the music of English without thinking about it.
When we speak other languages, we often talk with the same tone we would use in our native language.
I started learning Spanish 20 years ago, but I only realized that I was transferring my American intonation into Spanish in the last few years. 😂
Helping non-native English speakers improve their accent made me realize why people always commented on my “cute tone” in Spanish.
In American English, we convey lots of meaning through our tone of voice.
We express our emotions and attitudes with the rise and fall of our pitch.
A shift in tone can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
4) The Flow of English: Thought Groups, Linking, and Connected Speech
Last but not least, the flow of English is what gives the language its character.
Chunking, or phrasing, is when we breathe or pause in between thought groups (also called rhythm groups) in order to signal a complete idea.
Linking, which is also called connected speech, describes how we combine certain words in order to move through them more quickly.
An example you may already be familiar with is using contractions. Contractions are an efficient way to combine less important words with those that really matter.
When we use connected speech, we smash or crunch unimportant words together to put extra emphasis on the words that carry the most meaning in the sentence.
Linking works in combination with stress, so you have to master stress before connected speech sounds natural.
Think about the word “gonna,” the contracted form of “going to.”
Without correctly stressing the rest of the sentence, it sounds out-of-place.
(Want to know more? Learn how to sound like a native speaker when using informal contractions like gonna, wanna, dunno, hafta, and more.)
The flow of English will come more naturally once you’ve mastered the rhythm of English.
We link words in order to flow easily between the most important words in the sentence.
Don’t try to jump to the end – improve your word and sentence stress first.
Your Mindset is Essential for a Natural-Sounding Accent
Many non-native speakers repeat thoughts like these to themselves:
- My accent is never going to improve.
- I’m never going to be able to do this.
- I’m just always going to have an accent.
I’m speaking from experience here; this is how I feel when speaking Spanish most of the time. 😔
When you’re so used to people commenting on your accent or hearing yourself speak with one, it can be hard to imagine that it’s completely possible for you to improve how you sound.
Now that I know what I’m doing wrong when speaking Spanish (I’m stressing words incorrectly and using American intonation), I’m going to find an accent coach the next time I live in Latin America!
The truth is, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Unless you’ve worked with an accent coach, you’re probably not even sure exactly what you can improve.
Once you have the knowledge and resources to improve your accent, it will be possible to hear a difference in how you sound.
Your mindset matters.
Be kind and gentle with yourself: you just didn’t have all the information you needed yet.
To improve, you have to learn it. And once you learn it, you will make progress. And once you commit to making progress, you will see results.
Improving how you sound does take work, but the first step is believing you can change your accent.
Where Most People Get Stuck While Improving Their Accent
Real talk: Most people are aware of what they need to do in order to improve their accent.
They need to take action.
Right now, you’re probably somewhere in between awareness and action.
Most people get stuck in this place because they are taking independent actions once in a while over a long period of time.
They watch a video on how to pronounce the -ed ending, try it once, and then never work on it again.
But in order to make serious progress on your accent, you need to take consistent action over time combined with consistent awareness of what you’re currently working on.
Keep in mind that improving your accent doesn’t take forever.
Most people get noticeable results within 2-4 months depending on how much action they’re taking on a regular basis.
I created my stress and intonation programs because most of the real work takes place outside of coaching sessions using drills and practice exercises.
This means you are responsible for making progress. Your coach is simply a guide who can encourage you to stay motivated.
Showing up once a week to a one-to-one session is not enough – you have to retrain your mouth to produce these new sounds and shapes and your ear to hear the rhythm, music, and flow of English.
What Accent Coaches Want You to Know
Improving your accent is not impossible. We have seen it time and again with our clients and students.
Just living in a native-speaking country is not enough.
I know this firsthand from years of living in Spanish-speaking countries and sounding as American as ever.
What we really want you to do is take action towards your goals.
You may logically know what you need to do, but you need to follow a process or system and make it part of a daily life.
Improving your accent is about learning how to move your mouth differently than you have been for most of your life.
If you focus most of your attention on word and sentence stress, you’ll speak more clearly so that people understand you and you can communicate effectively in English.
If having a more natural-sounding accent is important to you, I encourage you to put in the work to get results.
As always, my goal is to demystify the process so that you can focus your energy on what truly matters: communication.
When you focus on your needs, you’ll stop getting distracted by things that don’t matter.
Now it’s your turn! After learning the four elements of a natural-sounding accent, what do you want to focus on first?
Have you felt distracted by the sounds of English? Have you worked on your word and sentence stress? Have you ever thought about your intonation?
If you’re interested in exploring the approach I suggest above, check out these videos:
- Find Your Flow When Speaking English – Stress, Rhythm, Melody, Contrast, and Thought Groups
- Pitch and Intonation When Speaking – Intonation For Statements, Questions, and Thought Groups
- Intonation for Clear Communication – Why Intonation is So Important in American English
- Change Your Meaning with Your Voice – Intonation, Inflection, and Tone of Voice