Posted on by Peter Rettig

Foreign Language Pronunciation - “Don't worry too much about your accent!"

No pressure - An article by Dr. Marjo Mitsutomi recently caused me to reflect on my own language learning efforts. I had shared with readers of a earlier blog post my dislike and struggles with French.

In fact, I can still remember how I resented having to “produce” the French nasal “n” in class.

On-line language learning can take away such embarrassment, but not the difficulties for an adult learner to fully acquire the native-like pronunciation of a foreign language.

Dr. Marjo Mitsutomi, a linguist and multilingual/multicultural teacher, points out in Some Fundamental Principles of Language Teaching and Learning that: “when all circumstances are normal, most children learn the basic structures and vocabulary of their language within the first four years of their life.”

She also notes that: “although people are capable of learning any number of languages during their lifetime, many experience failure of different degrees in the process of learning other languages....Anyone who has ever seriously attempted to master another language knows that it is a time consuming and challenging effort... Yet research and experience demonstrate that the only area most negatively affected by a 'late' onset of language study is pronunciation.

There are many elements of this wonderful article that make it worthwhile reading for any language “aficionado”.

Accent Confessions

My own experience certainly confirms the statements about “pronunciation”: Although I started learning English in fifth grade and became quite fluent in French in my twenties, I cannot disguise my native German accent in either language.

Several years ago, during the zenith of my consulting career, I took “accent reduction” lessons in English. I was able to improve my “Ws” and “Vs”, so I did not sound quite as Colonel Klenk of “Hogan's Heroes”.

In French, my accent may be less Germanic than in English, as French natives often have difficulties placing it. “French Canadian” is not an uncommon guess. A typical Swiss-French giveaway is often not the accent, but the numbers: While 70 in French is “soixante-dix”, the Swiss-French, (as well as French speaking Belgians), would also use a more practical “septante.”)

Famous Accents

Some have suggested that Henry Kissinger kept his strong German accent on purpose, but I don't believe so. Arriving in the US as a teenager, I am sure he tried very hard to sound American.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, during his movie career on the other hand, may even have benefited from his Austrian/German accent; even as governor he could not completely disguise his language background (and “accent reduction” lessons would have been easy for him to find in Hollywood!).

Always Remember

So, what should an adult foreign language learner take away from all of the above recollections and musings: Don't worry too much about your accent! 

In all likelihood, you will never sound like a native in the foreign language! It is also true, as Dr. Mitsutomi notes “...since there are so many distinctly different accents and even varieties of English itself throughout the world that all English speakers have an accent in someone else's ear.”

You'll certainly want to try to emulate the native speakers of your language program as much as you can. But don't get discouraged, if this appears difficult at the beginning.

With time, your pronunciation will improve as you'll pick up more of the language “melody.” And by just considering improving your pronunciation a lifelong “hobby,” you are taking away the pressure, and can enjoy listening and speaking, the essentials of verbal communication!