“Can I Sound More Native?”: Accent Reduction Techniques and Training
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“Can I Sound More Native?”: Accent Reduction Techniques and Training

Ximena Lama-Rondon

Accent reduction is not exactly a new trend in the linguistic community, but it’s definitely still a “new deal” for general language learners. That doesn’t mean it’s an obscure set of practices: even if you haven’t heard about accent reduction techniques already, you have probably thought about it without knowing it had a specialized name of its own.

So have you ever felt awkward when trying to speak in the language you are learning? Do you wish you could sound more natural or avoid giving away the fact that you’re foreigner as soon as you open your mouth?

Accent reduction for blending in
"Accent reduction" can keep you safe, but it may not get you out of "foreign price" completely

The vocal coaching you’re after exists, and it’s called “accent reduction.”

What Is Accent Reduction?

Accent reduction training is a series of techniques meant to modify the way you speak in order to “lose” your original accent.

There are two main types of accent reduction: foreign accent reduction and regional accent reduction.

Foreign accent reduction

Foreign accent reduction coaching is already a big industry for people learning English as a second language – including immigrants and refugees – as many believe that “sounding like a local” will make people more accepting of them,  increase job opportunities, or even protect them from xenophobic incidents.

However, it is also a pretty common goal for expats and tourists who want to blend in better or just improve their overall speech.

Foreign accent reduction or elimination should not be confused with general pronunciation exercises. When you’re learning a new language, you will need to work on your pronunciation anyway – a very thick accent or clipped, slow speech can make it hard for others to understand you. That being said, you can still be perfectly understood in English or Spanish, but have hints of your native French showing through – and this is fine. Modern linguists are always adamant about the fact that there is no such thing as a “proper” accent.

Regional accent reduction

Meanwhile, regional accent reduction is usually geared for people who are already native speakers of a certain language, but want to adopt the cadence and peculiarities of a different variant.

This was pretty common in the United Kingdom up until the end of the 20th century, for example: often, people from Northern England or Scotland believed they needed to sound like upper-middle-class Londoners in order to advance professionally.

Regional accent reduction and stereotypes
Pretty much every country has a version of this map

Regional accent reduction often has its roots on classism or on pejorative regional stereotypes, but it doesn’t have to. Actors routinely engage “accent coaches” in order to embody a character better. In some professions that require talking to the public (from sales to the medical field), speaking more like the local population can help bridge distances, and it gets people to open up to you more easily.

How is Accent Reduction Done?

If you are looking for a way to eliminate or minimize your accent, you can choose between three different avenues.

Traditionally, accent reduction required many hours of one-on-one vocal coaching. This is the fastest and most effective route, and actors training for a role still go this route – but of course, it requires a a lot of money or a producer to foot the bill.

Nowadays, you can also find many online accent reduction courses and video tutorials. These are often free or a lot more expensive. They include examples of vocal exercises that will help you achieve each sound, and then move onto applying these changes. This route takes longer, and it will require you to learn the IPA phonetic alphabet first.

Although budget-friendly, this method also runs the risk of creating an “artificial”, overly self-conscious way of speaking.

Great for the workplace, odd when ordering coffee

Finally, you can get surrounded by your target audience and imitate real speakers. This works particularly well for regional accent reduction, to the point that it sometimes happens by accident.

For foreign accent elimination, it may be a shot in the dark if you just wait for it to happen naturally. That being said, Lingopie offers you an entertaining, bottomless bank of realistic voice clips for you to imitate. So you can take the free online course and the realism of a riveting murder plot, while still staying clear of sounding like a TV anchor.

Accent Reduction Techniques for the Solo Learner

So do you want to start working on your accent from home? Then you will need tons of examples of your target accent (a single season of a soap opera will be enough), a recorder, earbuds, some patience, and a roadmap to get you started.

And of course, we’ve included the latter below.

Set the right goal

The first important step is to define your goal. Are you just trying to achieve “proper” (understandable) pronunciation so you can talk to people? Or are you trying to pass off as a life-long Argentinian or Madrileño?

This will depend on your current level. You will need to achieve the first before working on the second.

Identify “trouble sounds” for your native language

These are the sounds that just don’t exist on your native language, but are key for a “native-like” Spanish diction. Each language has certain “giveaway sounds” that tend to carry across any new language you learn.

If you are trying to learn Spanish, your biggest hurdle will be pronouncing the infamous Spanish Rs (and there's two of them!).

For native American English speakers, the /T/ and /D/ sounds also give a bit of trouble. On the other side of the pond, native British speakers often have a tendency of leaving the last vowel of each word as an undefined “uh” that’s neither an /A/ nor /U/.

Dutch and French often gravitate towards the opposite mistake when pronouncing soft Rs –they pronounce them at the back of the tongue rather than the front.

Meanwhile, German speakers should look out for theirs /B/s and /V/s. It’s terribly common in both languages to treat both letters as if they were similar – but where Spanish speakers default to the /B/, Germans will make everything into a /V/.

Finally, Italians often press their /S/ sounds and make them sound a bit like a “buzz”

Learn how to say each word and for how long

In addition to the way you pronounce each sound, accent reduction techniques also work on the overall cadence of your speech.

Certain languages and variants have a tendency to stress or slow down at different parts of the sentence. With few exceptions, most Spanish speakers just talk faster than English speakers. In addition, Spanish also has a tendency to emphasize verbs, whereas English will slow down when saying nouns.

If you are seeking to replicate a specific region’s accent, you will also need to get the rhythm right. Try listening to someone from Buenos Aires or Medellin with your eyes closed, and you will see how the melody falls and rises at a specific pattern. Can you play it with a pencil?

Learn how to say things wrong, too!

Nothing screams “language learner” more than having a perfect grammar. While this is good in a formal situation (like when talking to your boss or writing blog posts for Lingopie), in everyday life it can be… odd.

As a general rule, most speakers adapt the strength of their regional accent to the social circumstance – and almost universally, this means adopting a more neutral version in formal settings. So when it’s time to move from the conference room to the Happy Hour, it may get significantly harder to pass off as a native.

Accent reduction and code-switching: don't sound awkward
As if office parties weren't awkward already

Make sure to learn how each region sounds when relaxed: this can go from certain contractions, to new local slang and even new verbal forms.

To Sum Up

The path to accent reduction is simple, but takes work. Once you know how you want to sound, you will need to identify what makes it sound the way it does. Then you will need to start working on imitating it. Keep track of your results with a recorder, and compare the results on a daily basis.

At Lingopie, you can access hundreds of hours of foreign-language TV and movies. These are all conveniently classified by regional variant (just look at the flag on the corner), as well as terribly entertaining. Join today to start learning Spanish and improving your pronunciation.