Tag Archives: Language acquisition

How to Instantly Improve your Accent in a second language

7 Oct

We’ve all met a foreigner who has come up to us to ask a question (maybe directions to the bus station or the nearest bakery… at least that’s what I usually look for in new cities) only to not understand a word they have said to us because of their “heavily” accented English.

Was that some form of Quehua???

Was that some form of Quechua???

They might be speaking grammatically perfect English but their accent signals to our brain that: “This person is speaking some strange language that you don’t understand… possibly Dutch… or Klingon! YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!!!”

It happens all the time. I work part-time in a bar and last week I had an older Finnish guy come up to ask for a drink. I had to ask him to repeat his order 4 times before I realized he wanted a Gin & Tonic. I felt ridiculous and I consider myself to be much better than average at understanding accented English due to over 7 years of living in non-English-speaking countries.

The under-appreciated Importance of Accent
Here’s something that you unfortunately won’t hear much about in your average secondary school language class:


Working on your accent in your second language will benefit you in the following ways:

  • it will make you instantly more understandable
  • it will make it easier for native speakers to accept you as a competent speaker of their language

Check out this little video I recorded which shows the difference between Spanish and Japanese spoken in my native Irish accent and then with a much more “neutralized” accent. I think you’ll agree that the neutral accent sounds a whole lot more understandable (but does lose some of its Irish charm 😉 ) 

Eliminate your own accent
So, imitating the accent of another language is not easy. It is by no means impossible but it does take plenty of conscious practice.

What I’m proposing, to begin with, is the much simpler option of just eliminating your own accent.

The easiest way to do this is to focus on what makes your particular accent distinct and then gradually try to eliminate those idiosyncrasies from your second language (where they only help in making you more difficult to understand).

This can run the full gamut from cadence, to pronunciation, to sentence intonation etc. Obviously, the more aspects you focus on, the better.

Let me take a Selfie!
So a great way of doing this is to record yourself speaking your chosen language.

Make a quick video of yourself reading something (newspaper clippings or comics are great). Play it back, analyze it yourself and then decide what parts are making you sound… like a foreigner. Better yet, get a native speaker of your target language to review it for you and help you work on your pronunciation issues.

Then it’s just a matter of practicing the same words or sentences, just without the accent that makes it sound… odd!

Give it a shot. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to improve how you sound, be it in Japanese, Spanish, Klingon or whatever.

Keep talking folks.


Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular  🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”I’d really appreciate it  😉

Learning Languages made easy!

14 Aug

Learning a new language is easy when you know how!

Like almost every Irishman (and the vast majority of people on earth), I’ve been taught languages other than my native English since I was a child.

I started with Irish (Gaelic, for my non-Irish readers) in primary school. It was an academic journey that lasted 12 years (until I finished secondary school) and like the majority of Irish people (unfortunately) I hardly speak a lick of my ancestral language (much to my own shame).

The next language I had any academic exposure to was French. For my first three years in secondary school I didn’t really take it seriously but I studied enough to pass the tests although I could hardly speak it. That changed when I got a new french teacher for my last 2 years. She was a terrifying woman who ruled that classroom with an iron fist. I remember once she quizzed me on some vocabulary. I didn’t know the answer and was so scared that my vision blurred and the room felt as if it was shaking…seriously!

Fear is a great motivator and I did learn quite a bit of French in her class. More importantly she instilled me with a desire to learn the language and I’m very grateful to her for that (she was actually a really nice person, just terrifyingly strict). It was because of her that I decided to work in France for a summer to up my level.

The next and most important language I was exposed to was Japanese. I moved there to work in 2006 and lived there for 4 years. I was determined to get fluent and I was very lucky that my job afforded me a lot of free time to study Japanese and try lots of different methods.

Over my years in Japan I learned a lot about language acquisition from an excellent website called alljapaneseallthetime.com. I still use a lot of the philosophies I learned from that site when I try to learn languages. It works; today I work part-time as a Japanese translator.

My current language challenge, while I live here in Colombia, is Spanish. For various reasons (mostly down to pure laziness on my part) I’m nowhere near as good at Spanish as I would like to be after 11 months here. However, I do think that I speak better Spanish than I should for the amount of work I’ve actually put in. For that I can thank the following tips that I’ve learned over the years.

*Please bear in mind that a lot of these tips are aimed at people living in a country where the target language is spoken but there are also plenty that are applicable regardless of your physical location.

Learning a new language opens up a whole new world of possibilities and people you can get to know!

Tips for success

Eliminate English (or whatever your native language is): avoid English whenever possible and use use the language you want to learn in it’s place. You should only resort to your native language when all else fails i.e. when you haven’t got a clue what is going on. It also gives you an excuse to avoid certain annoying friends who speak your native language… it’s for educational purposes.

Read everything (in the language you want to learn): I’m not just talking about books, magazines and comics (which are great by the way). Got a flier for restaurant in your mailbox? Read it. Cooking instructions on the back of a box of food? Read them. Toilet graffiti? Read it. Every opportunity you have to read the language you’re learning and increasing your exposure.

Get musical: load you’re MP3 player with as much music as you can get in your target language. Any chance you can get, have those ear-buds attached and just listen casually, you don’t need to focus on what they’re saying exactly. You can also download the lyrics and read them along as the song plays (do it on the bus like I do just to see everyone’s reaction to the crazy foreigner singing to himself).

Learn new things through your new language: if you need to look up a fact, look it up in the language you’re learning. If you want to learn how to make ice-cream from scratch, find a recipe in your target language. The fact that the subject matter is important to you means you’ll retain more information. Wikipedia in your target language is your new best friend.

Try podcasts: Pod casts are basically web-based, downloadable talk-shows or radio programs. The topics are always incredibly varied so you’re bound to find something that interests you (I usually listen to cooking shows). Again you listen to them passively, while you’re driving or walking etc. it’s the constant exposure to the sounds of the language that helps.

Make friends: you need to practice the language and it’s much easier to practice with people you feel comfortable with (you’ll hold back much less). Also, you can ask friends to correct your mistakes and they’re much more likely to do it than people you don’t know well. My Colombian friends correct my mistakes all the time… after laughing at me (but that’s ok, we’re friends).

Join clubs: basically mix with local people as much as possible. Join a gym or a local sports team, take group dance classes, sign up for a cooking class. You have the joints benefits of doing something that interests you and meeting lots of new people to speak with. Public noticeboards are great places to look for them.

Carry a notepad: I always carry a little notepad to write down new words and phrases I hear so I can study them later. Most mobile phones these days also have a memo program so you can just note it on your phone for review later. My friends here in Cali get a kick out of it when I write down what they say (especially since it’s mostly slang and obscenities).

Use an SRS: an SRS (spaced repetition system) is basically a computer program that helps you remember things better and faster. I use a free SRS program called Anki. You can find all the information you need on the anki homepage. I cannot stress enough how incredibly useful an SRS is for language acquisition. The SRS is a language learning game changer.

Watch movies: or TV or anything for that matter, in the language you want to learn. A great place to start is watching movies you’ve seen before dubbed into your target language. You already understand the basic plot so it helps you understand what’s going on. If you can get movies with subtitles in the language you’re learning (not in your native language), all the better.

Use a native dictionary: as you progress and you understand more and more of a language you can start using a dictionary completely in that language. That means you’ll be learning new vocab through your target language which means more exposure and better retention in my opinion. Use a children’s dictionary if you can (they usually come with nice pictures as a bonus).

Change your settings: change the settings of your computer, your phone, your, camera, your email account, your facebook to the language you’re learning. You already know how to navigate them well so it shouldn’t be a hindrance and you’ll learn a whole load of essential words. It also means your friends probably won’t be able to fool around with your settings when your not looking.

Keep it interesting: You retain much more of the language when you’re learning about something that interests you e.g. cooking, sport, celebrity gossip etc. (and you’re also much more likely to remain motivated and keep studying). If you have no interest in the history of turn of the century South American politics, avoid it. Don’t get bored. Boredom is death.

Make mistakes: one of the greatest obstacles that people have to making progress with new skills is being overly concerned with making mistakes and looking foolish (this is very applicable to language learning and dancing salsa). Stop worrying about looking stupid, we all look stupid anyway and get out there and make as many mistakes as you can. Making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn (at least that’s my excuse)

Practice: as I’ve said before in this article, practice makes perfect. The more time you put into actually speaking the language, the faster you’ll get better. Practice doesn’t have to formal either, just make friends and above all have fun with it and you’ll be speaking a new language in no time.

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Fiona Uyema

Japanese Cookbook Author

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