For some reason, I never considered how important it was to perfect my accent until recently. It’s not exactly the first thing you think of when learning a new language, but I’ve really started to focus on this after 1) hearing that my German accent was actually pretty good and 2) realizing that I keep trying to pronounce Polish with a German accent. Now, this might sound like an odd area to focus on, because I’ve essentially grown up hearing many different accents and various abilities of comprehension. However, in some languages, where native speakers might not be so used to hearing their language spoken with an accent, a mistake in pronunciation can really make it difficult to understand. At the same time, when we think of people who speak a language very proficiently, we generally think of those whose accents do not make communication difficult.
There are a couple of factors to consider in this whole area of “accent.”
*Pronunciation- How you actually say individual words; for example, is the word pronounced “Aah-pul” or “ey-pul.” This is usually what is thought of when we talk about needing to improve on accents.
*Intonation- Rising and falling of pitch in speaking. If you really pay attention to how you physically speak, you will find that our voices change pitch periodically (which is why in Hollywood, people will make fun of those who speak in a monotone voice, where the pitch doesn’t change at all). This will be different in different languages.
*Stress- Certain syllables will be said differently than others. Sometimes this will change the meaning of the word, for example the word “defense.” It can be pronounced as “DE-fense” or “de-FENSE.” It depends on the stress (though in this case, it doesn’t so much change the full meaning of the word, and would be obvious in context what you meant).
*Physical placement- Like intonation, you need to focus on listening and feeling the speech, but languages physically place their words differently. In English, I can “feel” the sound in a certain part in my throat. In German, I feel it in a very similar place, but a little higher up. In Spanish however, the sound is much more forward, like it just sits on the lips. Personally, this is the hardest part of improving my Polish accent, because it’s much more forward than English and German!
As you can see, there’s much more to accent than just proper pronunciation! What I’m trying to do, and actually did do with my German, is do a LOT of listening. That will help get the proper sounds into my head, and hopefully I will know when I have an accent error. It actually took me hours to do this with German just listening to the way they pronounce their “r” in context. I still have problems with that sound sometimes, but in general, I think my method worked.
I hope that this post has helped to emphasize that this area certainly deserves attention in learning and perfecting a language!