Why do language learners have an accent when speaking? Can we improve our accents? Should we really care about having an accent? Let’s talk about this on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

Distinct (adj) – clearly separate and different from something else

The dogs are two distinct breeds

Identity (n) – who a person is, or the qualities of a person that makes them different from others

In prison people often suffer from a loss of identity

To get rid (phrasal v) – to throw away or remove something unwanted

Horses get rid of flies by moving their tails

To perceive (v) – to come to an opinion about something, or have a belief about something

How do French people perceive the British?

Phonetic (adj) – a spelling system can be described as phonetic if you can understand how words are pronounced simply by looking at their spelling

Japanese has two different phonetic alphabets

Syllable (n) – a single unit of speech, either a whole word or one of the parts into which a word can be separated, usually containing a verb

The word ‘button’ has two syllables

Comprehensibility (n) – the quality of being easy or possible to understand

I like the simplicity and comprehensibility of his writing style

Tongue twister (n) – a sentence or phrase that is intended to be difficult to say, especially when repeated quickly and often

“She sells seashells on the seashore” is a well-known tongue-twister

 A few weeks ago, I was playing a board game with a group of friends one evening. The group was very international; people from Germany, France, the USA, Taiwan, Japan, and the UK were all involved. After a while, a conversation, or maybe a debate would be a better word, began over the importance of learning accents. My friend from France was very insistent that to be fluent in a language you need to also master the accent. On the flip side, most of my other friends and I believe that accents are not that important. As a teacher, I tend to tell students to focus on being understood rather than copying the pronunciation of a native speaker. The simple reason is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of distinct English accents around the world

However, this discussion did make start to think about accents. Why do we have accents? Does our accent matter? Is it an important thing to focus on for students? How can we improve accent? So, on this episode of Thinking in English I’m going to try to explore these questions and hopefully give you all some useful information. Importantly, this is not going to be the kind of article you usually find on the internet promising to give you tips on how to improve your accent! Of course, I will give you some advice, but as I already mentioned, I don’t think accents are too important. As long as I can understand you, I think its fine. I believe that having an accent is an interesting feature that can help keep some of your identity while speaking a foreign language! So, instead I’m going to focus more on what an accent is, why we have them, and are they important!

Let’s start with the most basic question; what is an accent? In a nutshell, your accent is the way you sound when you speak. It is a combination of the sounds you make with the stress you use and the timing of your words. Accents are different from dialects. An accent is just differences in sounds and pronunciation, while dialects also involve different grammar and words. In all languages there are both native and foreign accents. Native accents are the way a group of people (a cultural group, region, country, city, or even a village) speak their own native language. Often this is connected to location and social class. Over years and years, people who live close together and speak often together gradually grow to share a way of speaking and accent that is different from other groups. That is why people from Texas, who mainly speak to people from Texas in the USA, and people from Liverpool in the UK, who mainly speak to people from Liverpool, sound as if they are speaking different languages.  

Foreign accents occur when someone speaks a language using rules and sounds borrowed from a different language. If the speaker doesn’t know how to pronounce a sound or word, or can’t pronounce a sound or word, they may use an alternative way of speaking from their own native language. People obviously have difficulties with sounds that don’t exist in their native language. To illustrate, a German speaker may struggle with words like ‘wish’ and ‘this’ as the beginning sounds don’t exist in German. Instead, they may resort to using ‘v’ and ‘z’ sounds as these do occur in German. By using these ‘foreign’ sounds, the speakers’ accent doesn’t sound usual or natural to native speakers.

Why do we have accents when we speak foreign languages? Surely, we should just learn the rules that native speakers use. It is not actually that easy. There are physical reasons why you may not be able to get rid of your accent. Sometimes, we can’t say a sound even if we wanted to. The English sound ‘th’ is an example; many learners cannot physically say that sound. After we are born, we have what is known as universal language learning capabilities. We have the ability to learn and perceive every sound if we are exposed to it. For a person to be able to pronounce certain sounds, you need to be exposed to them when you are very young. Moreover, you might not even be able to hear the sound.  

According to a recent Economist article, another reason you have an accent in a foreign language is because pronunciation, stress and rhythm are rarely taught well by English teachers. Focus is on grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure, and comprehension, instead of accent. This leaves students no choice but to guess, to the best of their ability, how to say a word correctly. I taught for a few years in Japan, which is a country famous for their struggles at pronouncing English. One reason for this is that English textbooks in Japan will often explain pronunciation using a phonetic Japanese alphabet instead of teaching students how to say it naturally. Compared to English, Japanese has relatively few sounds, and almost always combines vowels and consonants together, meaning that the Japanese English accent sounds really unique to English speakers.

Using equivalent sounds does not always work. The Economist give the example of the ‘p’ sound in English and French. Textbooks might not explain the difference between these two sounds, but in practice they do sound different. English speakers tend to make a strong puff of air when the say the letter ‘p,’ while in French they don’t have a strong puff of air. Small differences like this are often not taught, but key in the development of accents.

Next, how about stress. When we speak, we put stress, or don’t put stress, on the sounds we use. All languages do it. To use French as an example again, they stress all words on the final syllable. This even applies to foreign words and names, which means if you want to perfect the French accent you need to adjust the way you stress syllables. The American city Houston (HYOO-ston) is yoos-TON in French. In English, we also often will use secondary stress as well. For example, in the English word ‘possibility’ – the primary stress is on the ‘bi’ syllable and the secondary stress is on the ‘p’ sound. A French speaker, who would naturally stress the final syllable, would pronounce this word differently to a native English speaker. There are many other reasons accents exist: rules about what can or can’t be used to start a sentence in a language; combined consonants (think about the English word “squirrel” which has an odd skw sound at the beginning and a difficult rl sound at the end); or timing.  

Does having an accent affect your ability to communicate? From my experience, I would say it depends on your specific case, what your native language is, and who is listening to you speak. However, most of the time you certainly do not need to sound like a native speaker to integrate into a society or work professionally in English. Accents are also an important part of your identity and tell a story about who you are and where you come from. Research actually suggests that accent is not always the major problem when it comes to being understood. For example, while pronunciations errors make Hindi and Urdu speakers sound more accented, it is grammatical errors that affect their comprehensibility. For Chinese speakers, accent is more important. While for romance language speakers (like French or Italian) both grammar and pronunciation affect ability to be understood. Instead of reducing accents, the focus of teachers like myself, and students like yourselves, is to make you understandable not to sound like a native speaker. Perhaps this requires pronunciation help, but perhaps you need to focus more on grammar and sentence structure.

So, despite what I’ve just said, I’m going to end this episode with a few tips on how you could improve your accent. The obvious tip is to listen to native English speakers. If you want to sound like someone from New York, listen to New Yorkers. If you want to sound like someone from Australia, listen to Australians. Listen to music, download podcasts (like this one!!) or watch movies. The choice is yours. To really improve your pronunciation, you should concentrate on the sounds more than usual.

The next two tips are a little more technical. You might not find this useful, but it certainly helped me with my pronunciation. First, try learning the international phonetic alphabet. If you have looked up a word in a dictionary and seen those strange looking characters below the word, that is actually a guide on how to pronounce the words. The international phonetic alphabet includes a symbol for almost all known spoken sounds in every language. If you know how to read those sounds, you will find it a lot easier than guessing how to pronounce English words. Second, you should think about your mouth more. You heard me right, think about your mouth. Repeat after me: “eee,” “ehh”, “ahh.” Do you notice what is happening in your mouth? The sounds are moving backwards. Understanding where sounds are made, the shape your mouth should be, and the position of your tongue helps you to better your accent!

Next, you could always listen to yourself and watch yourself. Personally, I hate doing this. I don’t like the sound of my own voice. But it is really useful as you can hear the differences between what you think you are saying and what you are really saying! And finally, try some tongue twisters. I love tongue twisters, and I actually recorded an episode earlier this year introducing a few if you are interested! I’ll link it in the description below and on my blog!

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to explain English accents. I talked about what an accent is and why you have one.  Then, I discussed if an accent is actually a bad thing to have, before ending on a few tips to help you improve. Overall, I don’t think that having an accent is a bad thing. I also don’t think it is something necessary to focus to much time on. If it is affecting your ability to be understood, then of course try to improve. But the key is being understood, not on sounding like a native speaker!

How is your English accent? Do you want to sound like a native speaker? Do you think it is important or not?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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