“Lice or Rice” or “The Foreign Language and the Accent”

By Denise Doty

Long time ago in a faraway land named Japan, a young lady was being asked by her Japanese host mother, if she wanted to eat some lice. Needless to say she was horrified! Japanese eat lice! How disgusting! She thought to herself. As she looked at her host mother, she quickly realized that she was trying to say rice and not lice! This was my first experience many years ago with accents. This is when I realized how important accents are.

What is an accent?

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines accents as a distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, especially one associated with a particular nation, locality, or social class. Basically, it is the way you speak. A person will have an accent when they use some of the rules or the sounds of the native tongue to speak a second language.



Why do people have accents?

There are over 800 different phonemes in human speech. A phoneme is the smallest distinct unit of sound in a language that will distinguish one word from another. As babies, humans can hear all phonemes, however as they learn their native tongue, they rapidly develop a preference for those phonemes that exist in their native language. By the age of one, you’ve learned to select those phonemes that are in your native tongue and ignore the rest. As adults, we find it more difficult to hear and pronounce those phonemes that do not exist in our own language. This is why most adult learners have a foreign accent. Think of trilled r’s, clicks made with the tongue or guttural sounds, all these phonemes can cause difficulty in learning another language if your mother tongue doesn’t use them. The hardest sounds to learn are those sounds that sound similar to your own native language. These sounds can interfere with your attempt to learn the new sounds. Phonemes aren’t the only reason we have accents. Sound patterns or groups of sounds differ from language to language. Some sound patterns don’t even exist in other languages. Then there is the word order. Sentence structure differs from language to language.

Is learning one language harder to learn than another?

The answer is: it depends. It depends on your native language. If you are learning a language that is quite different from your own, different sentence structure and phonemes then it will be harder to learn. The more similar, the easier it is to learn. When I came back from Japan, people would comment on how hard Japanese must have been for me to learn. I responded to those people by saying not really, I just used my Spanish to help me learn Japanese. What I was really saying was I found similarities in the word order. These similarities made it simpler to learn Japanese. A few years back, I had two exchange students living with me. One was from Spain and the other from Brazil. The cool thing was the two of them, speaking their own native tongues, could understand the other quite easily! This is due to the similarities in the two languages.

Do you need to speak with a native accent?

It used to be the language learner’s goal was to sound like a native. This took hours of study and concentration. It also caused a lot of stress to these language learners. By having this stress of a native accent, many language learners would feel embarrassed knowing they were unable to achieve this goal so they would avoid speaking whenever possible. The truth is native speakers really don’t care if your accent is perfect or not. What they do care about is whether or not they can understand you. Today, the language learner’s goal is based on the intelligibility principle. This principle concentrates less on individual sounds and more on the big picture of the language, like speaking habits, volume, stress, and rhythm. In other words, learning to speak a foreign language well enough to be comprehended by others.

Can pronunciation be learned?

Yes, it can! But again, the goal of learning to pronounce well should be to ease communication not to sound like a native. Improving your pronunciation is not impossible, but it does require a lot of work. This means practice, practice and more practice. The better your pronunciation becomes, the easier it will be for natives to understand you and for you to understand them.

What can you do to learn how to improve your accent?

I have studied languages for many years now, and no one has ever mentioned this following suggestion to me to improve my accent. In order to improve your accent, learn the International Phonetic Alphabet. http://www.unil.ch/ling/english/phonetique/table-eng.html. I think this is a brilliant idea!  If you are not immersed in the language abroad nor have friends that are native speakers this is the next best thing to learning how to pronounce words with the correct accent. When I lived in Colombia I went around saying “accento” , meaning accent. I pronounced “accento” with a hard “C” like in English. One day my 12 year old host sister spoke up and said I was pronouncing it wrong. I should have pronounced it like “assento”. I have never forgotten this, but it would have been nice to be able to look it up.

Another hint to improve your accent is to limit your practice with non-natives that are learning the same language as you. The reason for this is by practicing with non-native speakers you begin to acquire their accent, which might not be the correct pronunciation.

Before you even start working on your pronunciation you should train your ear. That is to say, get your ear used to listening to the language you are learning. You can do this by listening to radio and TV programs, talking to neighbors and friends, or join groups where people, both native and non-native, speak only in that language called meet-ups in the U.S. Track any words that you notice that you say incorrectly then practice listening and saying them over and over. Make sure you write it down and don’t forget to write how to pronounce it so you continue to pronounce it correctly the next days.

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Read out loud is another way to practice your pronunciation. Do your best at pronunciation then take note of any particular words or sounds that may cause you any difficulty. Once you do that, go back and practice the difficult words and sounds individually.

A fun way to practice your pronunciation is to learn a song in your target language. Find a song that you like and obtain the lyrics for it. Listen to the song while you practice singing it. As you memorize the song you will memorize how to pronounce it thus improving your pronunciation.


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