Learning English, like learning any other foreign language, is not rocket science, meaning it’s not actually that difficult. Human beings are naturally able to learn any language. We can even learn a second or third language to the same fluency level of a native speaker.
However, it’s not common to find English language learners who are so good that they sound just like native speakers. Why is this? Even my own father, who has been speaking English – only English – for over fifty years and has been living in Canada longer than he lived in his native country of Norway, still has a Norwegian accent. There are reasons for this but I won’t go into that in this video. But most importantly, how can you avoid this situation and become one of those few learners who has a native-like accent, if you want?
There are many different opinions from linguists about how some people are able to get native-like pronunciation in a second or foreign language, but I think the most interesting is from language specialist and educator, Dr. Stephen Krashen. In the 1970’s, Dr. Krashen became famous for his Input Hypothesis. He believes that learners get better at a foreign language through the process of understanding language input (listening and reading) that is slightly more advanced than their current level of understanding.
In addition to his Input hypothesis, Krashen’s theory of language acquisition includes four more hypotheses: the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis, the Monitor hypothesis, the Natural Order hypothesis, and the topic of this post: the Affective Filter hypothesis.
Krashen believes that there isn’t any real obstacle (or barrier) to getting a native-like accent. In this video we’re going to look into five things that Dr. Krashen believes can help or hinder (the opposite of help) how naturally you express yourself in English, or any other language you’re learning. These factors are not about your ability to gain technical language skills like pronunciation; they’re more about your own attitudes and identity and about how flexible you are to change. I’ve phrased Krashen’s factors as tips for you.
1) Create a connection to an English-speaking culture.
Dr. Krashen says that your ability to get a native-like accent depends on how much you feel like you belong to a given English-speaking culture. The more emotionally or psychologically you feel closeness to the culture, the better your accent can become. The opposite is true, too: The better your accent is, the greater your connection with its culture.
For many people, the easiest way to take on (or adopt) a native accent is to live in the target culture of the language. If you have English speakers around you on a day-to-day basis, it can be easier to emulate them (or imitate them). However, you don’t actually need to live abroad to adopt a given accent. You can look for native materials like podcasts, movies, YouTube videos, or TV shows from the English-speaking country that interests you.
In your free time, if you consume (or expose yourself to) all the media that you can get your hands onto, you’ll probably cultivate (or develop) a love for a certain English-speaking culture. And if you do that, you’ll find yourself subconsciously trying to imitate that accent when you speak English. You can practice in front of the mirror, imitate English speakers, record yourself, and get feedback from any native speakers you know. Little by little, your English will sound more like the target accent you want.
You might be happy about the changes you make in your English accent after some practice. However, be aware that your peers at work or your classmates at school might not be as happy with your changes. Suddenly, you’re not going to sound like they do. You’ll no longer sound like a native speaker of Polish or Chinese or French or Arabic talking in English. You might find that some people from your country or culture feel that your native-like English is a rejection of your own culture.
As an English teacher in Japan, I notice an interesting phenomenon in my classes. Many of my students claim they want to speak English with a better accent, yet those same students will often deliberately (or on purpose) pronounce English with katakana English (or Japanized English), even when they are capable of pronouncing words or phrases much better. They probably do this subconsciously. So for example, they might say, “Ai donto know” rather than “I dunno.” And I’ve heard them pronounce “I don’t know” perfectly one to one in my office. I think this probably happens to many Japanese because they don’t want to appear different from their peers. In Japanese culture, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
Sadly, I think if you’re really serious about improving your English accent while still living in your own country or culture, you might have to deal with people who are negative about your efforts. How you do this is up to you. You might decide simply to stop caring so much about what other people think of you. Ultimately, however, this is your choice.
Dr. Krashen says that you are indeed capable of speaking in any accent, BUT you have to want to be able to do it, and you have to feel that you will be accepted by native speakers if you do. And a lot also has to do with your personal identity. Do you feel that you’ll lose your native identity if you adopt a second one? If you feel you can have more than one identity, you’ll probably have more success at speaking another language with a native-like accent.
2) Develop close friendships with native speakers.
When you’re trying to develop a native-like accent, having good friends who are native speakers can be very helpful. If you speak with them in English, you can:
- get exposure to a large quantity (amount) of natural language;
- learn words, slang, and expressions that are not taught in textbooks or classes;
- imitate and try to speak with a native accent in real time, with immediate feedback if you ask for it.
Of course, this might not be possible for you depending on where you live. However, thanks to the Internet, it’s now possible to make virtual connections! There are many friend-making tools and apps out there – start searching!
Those three benefits I mentioned might seem obvious to you, but there is another, less-obvious reason for developing friendships with native speakers. Krashen believes that you will become less self-conscious of your English if you interact with native speakers.
When we’re around close friends or family, we tend to be more confident and we don’t care so much if we make fools of ourselves. We don’t worry so much about our actions and we don’t overthink. However, when we’re around people who we don’t know so well, we’re not as relaxed. We behave and speak more carefully and even nervously because we don’t know what to expect. When you’re speaking in a foreign language like English, this means you’re unlikely communicate well. Just a little bit of self-consciousness can negatively impact your performance.
So knowing this, if you want to have the best accept possible, you need to speak with native speakers you’re very comfortable with, and gradually make friends with native speakers you don’t know so well, and practice speaking with them. The more comfortable we are around native speakers, the less self-consciousness we’ll become when speaking in English.
3) Imitate the ways native speakers communicate using English.
Broadly speaking, language is much more than the words we say and their meanings. The way we say words also communicates something. Paralanguage refers to that part of spoken language outside the actual words you say. It includes things such as rhythm, intonation, tone of voice, pitch, volume, and speed, as well as the use of hesitations, pauses and silence.
In addition to language and paralanguage, people also share information through non-verbal communication. Experts believe that non-verbal communication makes up for more than half (sometimes as much as 90%) of all face-to-face communication. This is probably why it’s much harder to understand a foreign language on the telephone than it is in person. Gaze involves movements and direction of the eyes in visual interaction, such as eye-contact. Proxemics is how people perceive and use interpersonal and environmental space, such as how close you stand to each other and how often you touch others when talking; Kinesics refers to actions and positions of the body, head, and limbs. It includes body language, such as gestures, posture, and facial expressions.
As you can see, in addition the English language itself, there are many other factors that contribute to the meaning of what people say. Moreover, these verbal and non-verbal aspects can be very different from culture to culture, even when the same language is used.
If you want to sound like a native speaker, you’re not only going to have to speak with the correct grammar and pronunciation, but you’ll also have to adopt native speakers’ paralanguage, kinesics, gaze, and proxemics. Each of these features is a skill you can develop. Of course, the best way to get good at this is to spend time with native speakers from the culture you are aiming to feel a part of.
But if you can’t regularly interact with native speakers, then get exposure to their verbal and non-verbal communication by watching video and listening to audio. Try to take on the role of a native speaker character in a movie. You can do this in front of a mirror if you can. Copy what the speaker says. Imitate their facial expressions, how loud they speak, their intonation, and the way they show different emotions. With time and practice, you’ll gradually get good at their communication patterns, and your communication skills will get more and more native-like.
Once again, don’t feel surprised if your classmates react negatively, for example, to your new use of the non-verbal communication patters of the English-speaking region you want to adopt. They may perceive your behavior as a rejection of your shared language and culture. If you think they would react positively, you could try telling them that you are working hard to adopt a new identity, but you don’t plan to forget your own.
4) Practice speaking your own language with an English accent.
Have you ever tried to imitate the accent of someone speaking your language who is not a native speaker of it? Even though as children you were probably taught not to do this because it could be offensive and rude, most of us have probably done it at least once. Dr. Krashen notes that even though most people can imitate certain foreign accents in our own language, well, most people do not attempt to imitate accent when they speak that foreign language.
Well, how about doing that? Yes, I’m suggesting you spend time imitating a native English speaker who is trying to speak your own language but has not yet adopted your accent. Of course, don’t do this in front of them. Instead, do it in private at home, when you’re alone.
With more and more practice, you’ll probably start to get a feel about how different a Canadian or Irish or Australian accent feels when compared to your own. If it starts happening to you, it means you’re gaining an understanding of the mechanics of the accent, and not just the individual sounds.
After you gain some confidence creating the English-language accent in your own language, now you can change to speaking English, but this time, try to carry with you the physical feeling of that accent. Has your accent improved? After a lot of practice, ask a native speaker to find out for sure.
5) Get into a good mood before speaking.
I remember one Christmas many years ago when I brought home to Canada a Japanese boyfriend and at the same time my brother brought home his French-Canadian girlfriend. In addition, my uncles were visiting from England, and they had strong British accents and used slang that was not familiar to a lot of people in the group. I was the only one that was capable of communicating in French, Japanese, and understanding all the different English accents during that holiday, so everyone staying with my family looked to me to translate. I remember feeling a lot of pressure and not doing a good job. However, when the Christmas gløg (a Scandinavian mulled wine) was finally passed around, I started to feel very relaxed and got a lot better at switching between languages.
The same thing happened to me in Costa Rica, when I found myself trying to help French, Spanish, and Danish speakers communicate with each other. I was even more nervous because my Spanish and Danish were not strong, and they’re worse now. But again, after drinking a couple of bottle of beer, it seemed to me that my language skills… improved. Was I just drunk and imagining this?
Well, studies done in the early 1970s showed that after consuming a certain amount of alcohol – not a huge amount – the quality of a foreigner’s accent improved. This is probably because alcohol slows down the functions of your nervous system. This results in reduced anxiety when you’re trying to communicate in another language. However, if you drink too much, your language skills become sloppy, along with other skills, as you might imagine.
So, should you drink alcohol if you want to have a better accent? Well, you could, but there is a much healthier option. Before you engage in conversations in your target language, do some kind of activity that raises your dopamine levels. Dopamine is a brain chemical that helps create a positive emotional states in the brain. If you want to increase your dopamine levels, you can exercise, listen to music you love, meditate, get enough sleep, or spend time with loved ones, for example. Such activities will make you happier, more confident, and less anxious before you practice speaking.
Clearly, when it comes to adopting a native accent, you already have all the tools you need, and yes, it is possible. To quote Dr. Krashen,
Accurate pronunciation in a second language, even in adults, is acquired rapidly and very well. We simply do not use our best accents because we feel silly.
He’s saying that your mindset or your attitude is the biggest obstacle you need to overcome. To get a native-like accent, you need to really want it and embrace the culture, you need a lot of input – ideally from native speaking friends but also from audio-video materials, you need to cope with potentially negative feedback from native speaker of your own language, and you need to practice, practice, practice. And keep those dopamine levels up! Then you’ll be speaking with a native English-like accent sooner than you had hoped.
One final note: Remember that it’s perfectly fine if your goal is not to get a native-speaker accent. It’s not everybody’s goal. Also remember that for people that have been speaking in English with the accent of their own language for a very long time, like 10-20 years, it’s a much bigger challenge if they want to change their accent. This is because language fossilizes with age (or gets immobile or immovable). But at the the end of the day, the most important thing is that you’re able to communicate your thoughts and ideas to others and be understood. Personally, as long as you’re able to communicate, I don’t really care what accent you have.
Krashen’s Input Hypothesis: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Input_hypothesis
Krashen’s Affective filter: http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/a_conjecture_on_accent_in_a_second_language.pdf