Posted on by Peter Rettig

Why Worry About Your Accent? Speak as much as you can!

Gamesforlanguage - People talking Reading William Alexander's very enjoyable Flirting with French - How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart, I was reminded again how difficult it is indeed for adults to become fluent in a foreign language.

Yes, I still believe that using every opportunity to SPEAK ALOUD is key. (The topic of: The Three S's of Language Fluency).

Mr. Alexander's many hilarious anecdotes also make it clear that there are many obstacles to overcome before an adult can speak a foreign language fluently. However, he also found that the process of learning French has its own rewards.

Listening and Understanding

When my wife and I arrived in Italy several years ago, after having studied Italian with the 90 lessons of three Pimsleur Italian courses, we felt quite confident. Watching a television show the first evening quickly destroyed our illusion. We could barely distinguish words, even less understand what seemed to us to be just rapid-fire Italian.

After a couple of weeks of watching and listening, however, and doing the homework that our tutor gave us, we started to hear individual words. And sometimes we guessed the meaning from the context of the show or movie.

Understanding is obviously crucial - without it, there is no conversation. Listening/understanding is considered a passive activity, but it's importance should not be underestimated.

When we marvel at the ease children learn a language, we should not forget that their listening already starts before they are even born and it still takes them several years before they can speak fluently.

Daring to Speak

Overcoming the fear of speaking a foreign language is a big step for many adults. There are no shortcuts to speaking. You have to do it as often as you can, starting with reading aloud, repeating, recording your voice, etc.

What only could be done in "language labs" in schools and colleges in the past is now possible with many CD or online language courses.

In learning Italian and Spanish I have found that recording myself and comparing my pronunciation to that of the native speaker works best for me: I begin to hear the sound differences and while I'm often not successful in imitating the native speaker completely, I seem to get a little closer with every try. (And voice recognition programs just frustrate me!)

But speaking as part of a conversation obviously requires more than just pronouncing words more or less correctly. You have to recall vocabulary, consider word order, tenses, conjugations, and other grammatical idiosyncrasies to form sentences in a particular language. And, you have to do it in "real time."

Now, while learning vocabulary is essential, it's been our own experience that we recall words much better if we learn them in context, i.e. with phrases and sentences we would use ourselves. (That is also the idea of the travel story approach of!) When you recall and adapt phrases and sentences that you have heard and memorized, you have to think much less about word order, conjugations, endings, etc.

Yes, some apps and translation gadgets may help you look up a forgotten word or two, but for a real one-on-one conversation they are also a distraction.

We now know that, as we grow up, we lose our ability to distinguish certain sounds. Asian language speakers find it difficult to distinguish "l" and "r" sounds, as they don't exist in their languages.

English speakers have trouble with French nasal sounds, German speakers with the English "w." While certain sounds can be learned with a focus on the mouth mechanics (a previous post), chances are that an adult will rarely speak a newly acquired foreign language completely without an accent.

But stop worrying about your accent and start speaking! You will never become fluent in any language, if you don't start speaking. Once you start speaking, you'll also find out that there are quite a few words that you are missing. This will give you an incentive to use one or two of the many apps that help you learn and memorize new words.

We especially like apps which let you read articles and collect the words you don't know into a vocabulary list. You can practice those words later and then delete those you now know. In addition to the Apple and Android apps, there is also a Chrome extension, which you can apply to any document you read online.

A slick iOS app is Drops, available in the App Store, which is a lot of fun! They currently have 5 languages (English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish). You can play 5 minutes for free every day (for additional minutes you either have to pay or watch a commercial.)

Living with a Foreign Accent

I have been in the United States for quite a few years, but I still have a German accent. As I can't eliminate it, in spite of earlier "accent reduction" tutoring, I'll just live with it. I do speak English quite fluently - maybe better now than French, which I had learned in my twenties while living and working in Switzerland.

I have been told that my accent in French is not quite German (maybe Swiss German?), but I can clearly hear my German accent when I record myself while learning and improving my Italian and Spanish.

I recently heard Henry Kissinger on a TV show. His German accent is certainly much stronger than mine, but nobody would argue that he does not speak English fluently.

My point is: Once you dare to speak, you can always work on improving your accent. But do not let your accent be the reason for not speaking.