Non-natives are often poor speakers of a language for the basic reason that they don’t try to speak and learn like children do – trial and error. While children have little pride and are willing to be laughed at or with, they quickly forget their embarrassment, understand their mistake and master the language, sometimes better than their parents. By contrast, most adults feel ashamed when struggling to express themselves in a second language and avoid the learning process. Aside from grammar and vocabulary errors, foreigners often fear people’s reaction to their accent. Interestingly enough, this accent is generally not an issue for listeners. In reality, pronunciation and intonation can be a greater problem but fortunately can be consciously improved with practice.
Many foreign speakers hate the sound of their own accent in a foreign language. They can easily detect the difference between their accent and that of native speakers, whether live ones or those on television. As a result, they feel second-class or worse. Curiously, in many cases, a foreign accent actually creates a favorable impression. Henry Kissinger, he legendary Secretary of State under Nixon, retained his heavy German accent and caused people to believe that he was quite perspicacious, a benefit in his role. My mother was born in France and did not study English due to the “War”. She arrived in New York in her 20’s and quickly became a top perfume salesperson because people believed that, being French, she must be familiar with perfume. Even ordinary folk seem much more exotic when speaking with a foreign accent. How many actresses were considered sexy merely because they spoke in a different way? Thus, it is perfectly fine, even beneficial sometimes, to speak with an accent, even a heavy one.
On the other hand, native speakers do not understand the difficulty faced by foreigners in pronouncing the problem sounds posed by each language. Some examples include the throated h and a in Hebrew and Arabic, the various varieties of r in Russian, English, French and Spanish among others, the English th, so dreaded by the French, and the two types of sh in Russian. Every language has its landmines that test the tongue of the foreigner. Having learned to say these sounds as small children, locals see their pronunciation as obvious and view their mangling as laziness or lack of caring, which it is admittedly sometimes true. Fortunately, it is possible to practice these sounds in the safety of your own home, alone or with a trusted accomplice, and perfect their pronunciation. My challenging French r word was serrurière, a female locksmith, which truly gets your r’s rolling. Once you can say them like the native, your status will increase enormously as will their appreciation of your language skill and knowledge. It is all of matter of practice and therefore attainable.
A more difficult challenge is intonation. In simple terms, each language has a unique song, ranging from flat to sing-song or even extreme highs and lows. Russian tends to be flat, dying in the end while French is up and down and Italian and Hebrew simply sing. This is one of the reasons that speakers of certain languages are considered to be hysterical while other are viewed as cold. Simply, the natural rise and fall of volume varies by language and depends on the emotional content of the sentences. Small children naturally absorb the accepted intonation, but adults find it hard to change their way of speaking. Yet, incorrect intonation makes it difficult for natives to understand you and even sometimes conveys the wrong message, such as unintended annoyance, anger or questioning. As in pronunciation, a little homework goes a long way into retraining your speech to be flatter or more expressive. Over time, a person can develop linguistic schizophrenia, speaking in a different intonation for each language. In other cases, the learned intonation starts entering the native intonation, creating a hybrid. In any case, even not so young adults can practice and reduce native-language interference in their intonation, thus increasing the perception of their language skill, a good result in itself, as well as ensuring that their intended meaning is transmitted. As the song goes, you got the power.
So, if mastering a foreign language is a matter of practice and the willingness to make and learn from errors, accent should not be a barrier. Proper pronunciation and intonation can and should be learned, without public embarrassment. It is such a wonderful feeling when a local tells you how well you speak the language. Enjoy. You have earned the compliment.
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