Saturday, May 22, 2010

The three milestones in learning a foreign-language accent

When learning a language, your accent will go through at most three stages, as shown here:

Improving your accent over time
In the worst-case scenario, you'll start with most of your speech being unintelligible, i.e., native speakers don't know what you're saying. This is more like if you're going from, say, English to Chinese than, say, Spanish to Italian.

If your accent does start out unintelligible, it won't stay that way for long. Once you start speaking (and this should be happening early and often), you'll quickly reach the next milestone of most of your speech being intelligible, i.e., native speakers know what you're saying, even though your accent might very well be extremely strong.

Then it's time to get settled in for a bit, because the path between merely being intelligible and sounding like a native is often a long one. Over the course of plenty of speaking, you should be able to push your accent forward. As you get closer to sounding like a native, you'll probably need more concerted efforts (as opposed to merely speaking) to work out the kinks, but doing so will get you closer and closer to the native milestone.

That said, there's not necessarily a need to sound like a native. If you can do everything you need to do after the intelligible milestone but before the native milestone, then you could very will be happy with leaving it at that.


  1. I'm tempted to rename the "Intelligible" goal to "Fully Intelligible" and put another milestone between "Unintelligible" and "Fully Intelligible", namely, "Barely Intelligible". At the "Barely Intelligible" stage native speakers can understand with great difficulty what the language learner is trying to say.

    I have had several students who have who have learned to speak English by imitating their teachers. These students have at least an intermediate vocabulary level and a reasonable grasp of English grammar. The problem was that their teachers were not native English speakers, but speakers of the student's mother tongue. This produced students who were quiet fluent in "English" and who could be easily understood by their follow students. However, their accent was nearly impenetrable to native English speakers. Once students reach a degree of fluency with poor accent, it is extremely difficult for them to make progress toward the "Native" or even "Fully Intelligible" goals. Every time they open their mouths to say something in "English", they are reinforcing their poor speaking habits.

  2. I hear that. In Japanese, one thing that no one teaches to learners is that Japanese has this thing called "pitch accent" that could be used to distinguish between two words that would otherwise be spelled exactly the same, e.g., hashi (which could mean either "chopsticks" or "bridge", depending on how the pitch accent falls). My Japanese wife, who is doing her best to remedy this problem in my Japanese, is sometimes ready to pull her hair out over me repeatedly making the same mistakes.

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