Everyone who learns a new language as an adult has an accent. And that’s completely fine! Showing off your first language background proudly with an accent expresses your identity and is part of what makes you YOU! However, when you learn to speak a new language such as English, it’s necessary that you communicate clearly enough to be understood.
Linguists call this “communicative competence." Having strong communicative competence does not mean having a perfect accent. But if you want to develop an accent that is less “thick” as we say in American English, here are three strategies that can help you improve and become more confident.
1. Feel the sounds that you can’t hear clearly
Since every language uses different sounds, there are probably some sounds that you just can’t hear very well. When I first started learning Mandarin Chinese, I couldn’t hear the differences between the sounds “qi” and “chi” or “xi” and “shi” at all! But after I learned where the sounds are made inside the mouth and where my tongue needs to be to make each sound, I could produce them much more clearly. I still couldn’t hear them, but I could feel them! Soon I could tell whether I had spoken the correct word or not. Try this with the English sounds that are difficult for you. Practice feeling in your mouth where the sounds are supposed to be made.
Language learners often speak slowly. This is normal! However, if you try so hard to be correct that slow waaaaay down, this actually makes it harder for people to understand you. For example, say this sentence with one second between each word: “I would like to go to the airport please.” See how funny that sounds? Communicating with English speakers will be much easier if you remind yourself to speak faster: push those words together! And if you have to skip a word or two, it’s ok! Human brains are really good at filling in the blanks in sentences because native speakers leave out sounds too. So, practice sentences like “Iwouldliketo GO tothe AIRPORT please.” Even if you make a mistake or leave something out, the message will be still clearer.
This point is also important for advanced speakers of English. Medium-speed English is more interesting to listen to than slow English. To keep your listeners interested in what you have to say, trying speeding up a little and adding variation to your loudness and your pitch. If you go too fast, your listeners will tell you.
3. Focus on the patterns, not the sounds
Do you have some English sounds that you worry you will never make correctly? Don’t get stuck there! don’t despair! Instead, focus on the stress (the loudness), intonation (pitch or tone), and rhythm (length or thought groups) of the important words in your sentences. I have worked with many students who produce individual English words beautifully, but when they put the words into sentences they are harder to understand because they forgot to add patterns! In English, we always speak words together in groups, not one-by-one, and we speak important content words like main nouns and verbs in a louder, higher, and longer way. Focusing on these stressed words is how fluent English listeners remember important points in lectures or TED talks; it helps us to know what’s important. So, tell your listeners what matters most when you speak by using those patterns to the fullest! For example, if you speak
“Thisisthemost/ imPORTant THING/ that YOU/ willLEARN/ toDAY,” instead of "This is the most important thing that you will learn today," any accent that you do have will be much less noticeable.
Practice this strategy by listening to short pieces of English and trying to copy the loudness, length, and high/low sounds of English.
Ultimately, the best way to become more confident in speaking English is to find someone to practice with. So what are you waiting for? Go for it!