Language Learning: Accent vs Pronunciation

Which is more important for language learning: focusing on a good accent or good pronunciation?

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The majority of hard-core, nerdy, nitty-picky language blogs on the net promote having an authentic-sounding or ‘native’ accent as being the ‘holy grail’ of language learning.

I’m not saying having a decent accent isn’t important, or that your accent isn’t worth working on, but it definitely isn’t as important as many of these other language enthusiasts make it out to be. To clarify, the distinction I draw between an ‘accent’ and ‘pronunciation’ is as follows:

  1. Your pronunciation is your ability to pronounce words in a way that makes them intelligible to other speakers of the language. One can have the strongest accent possible, but as long as they are understood, they will usually be pronouncing things properly. An example of incorrect pronunciation would be pronouncing ‘down’ as ‘dawn’.
  2. Your accent includes things like your intonation and rhythm of speech. It is anything that makes you sound foreign. The classic ‘accent trap’ is pronouncing things exactly like you would in your native language, rather than actually listening to the way they are pronounced in the language you’re learning, and imitating it.

So, as you can see, while having good pronunciation is necessary for being understood, your accent doesn’t. You can have the biggest French (or whatever) accent, and people will still understand.

The Downside of Pursing Accent

Hard-core language learners are extremely proud of their ‘native’ accents in the second-languages they speak. And rightly so! It’s an impressive feat.

However, I think putting too much emphasis on the importance of a Chinese accent is actually doing language learners a disservice, as it tends to scare them off and instill in them a feeling of helplessness.

If you’re really that intent on pretending to be a native, and on impressing people with your impressive language abilities, then you should probably reconsider your motivation for learning another language. You have to be intrinsically motivated to learn a language, for more profound reasons than mere bragging rights, in order to learn it successfully.

Some people say that you should be working on your accent, and trying to achieve a native-sounding one, from the start of your language learning journey. Otherwise, they say, you’ll be learning bad habits that are hard to get out of. I actually have a completely opposite point of view about the matter.

I was fluent in French before I started developing anything near to a native accent!

As many of you already know, when I was 15 I spent 5 months in France living with a host family in order to learn French.

I came back with a relatively basic level of fluency (mainly due to my terribly inefficient learning methods) and, dare I say it, a shocking accent. I still have videos on my computer of me speaking French shortly after returning, and they are pretty cringeworthy.

Train Your Ear, not Your Tongue

 In my experience, as long as you do enough listening practice (for example, I’ve been practicing listening to the Chinese language), your ear will naturally attune itself to the sounds of the language you’re learning and you will have a decent accent without much extra effort. Once you’re at an intermediate or advanced level, you can focus on individual sounds that you have trouble with and slowly reduce your accent.

Also, in some situations, having an accent (but speaking well) is actually an advantage. I think it is impossible to speak a second-language 100% perfectly, every time. You’re going to make mistakes now and then. If your accent is native-like, then you will just sound uneducated or unintelligent when you make those inevitable mistakes. Whereas, if you have a slight accent, but speak incredibly well, you are likely to portray the opposite image – you will seem intelligent and educated, having taken the time to learn a second language to such a high level.

Final Thoughts: Accent vs Pronunciation

What I want you all to remember, is that it is silly to stress too much about your accent. As long as you’re understood easily, then I can’t see a problem. Eventually, it’s something you’d probably want to work on, however you’re better off spending that time actually getting better at speaking the language until you’re at an advanced level!

I know a lot of people have different views on this topic, so if you’d like to share yours, feel free to leave a comment below!

Author: Dan

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