That Accent Though

There’s always that one girl who says, “I love men with accents.” Well, what kind of accent? Accents are always very particular things with people, especially this hypothetical girl, because what she means is probably a man with a European (probably British or Italian) accent. While people may not make fun of you for having an accent (though some definitely will), they won’t see you the same way if you didn’t have an accent. This is very evident in India, where the slightest country twangs and upper class pretensions are taken into account. My dad (though he will never admit this), when reserving a restaurant for my birthday while we were in India three years ago, used a British accent to talk to the host on the other end. This came somewhat as a surprise, because I expected him to say it Kannada. My grandfather explained that people who speak English, especially, “without an accent,” (which is to say with a British accent or American accent), are given priority in reservations and such. Even if they tack on a couple thousand rupees, it’s apparently worth it to get the restaurant to wait for you while you’re stuck in heavy Indian traffic.

People who speak English natively usually notice when someone has an accent, but have no problem saying that a person is fluent if that person has great command over the language. Some might argue that accent doesn’t matter as long as you get your point across. Some might also say that accent shouldn’t be used to judge language proficiency. If native speakers think that your speech sounds unnatural, weird, or is hard to understand, you cannot be called fluent.

I believe that accent plays a very big role in how people view each other, not simply in terms of societal views that judge people. Accent distinguishes people via background, social status, and other criteria. It’s a mechanism for people to categorize people, and also find other people from their background when they’re away from home.

But, English is a special case. As an international language, it has the status of having multiple accepted accents around the world. However, for nearly every other language, this is not the case. Most languages in the world have very restricted subsets of what are considered, “correct,” accents within the standards of a particular language. As one of my Chinese friends put it, one person who speaks Mandarin with Fuzhou accent and another that speaks with a Shanghai accent are both fluent with “correct,” accents. But a French person that has a French accent when he or she speaks Mandarin (even if it’s the standardized version spoken in Beijing) is not considered fluent. I agree with this, and I think that part of learning a language (eventually), entails learning to perfect the accent.

Accent is very closely linked to pronunciation. Pronunciation makes up maybe 65% of one’s accent, and the remaining 25% is speech rhythm and cadence. Speech rhythm is how it sounds when somebody talks, and you describe it as, “singsongy,” or, “choppy.” Cadence is when you describe the way someone speaks as, “gravely,” or, “measured.” These are things one should learn eventually, and it goes without saying that the last two can only be learned by listening to native speakers. Accent is not necessarily something people use to judge and criticize. But it is important to try and sound as native as possible when learning another language! Feel free to leave any comments you might have!

Going Solo in Language

Since I’ve been learning Italian on my own for almost a year now, I thought I might share with you my tips and tricks for going solo in language learning. When you’re learning a language on your own, it can be difficult without formal instruction, but there are essential steps to do it effectively.

1) Get a feel for the way a language sounds. This is unimaginably important. Every day in my Spanish class, I hear that one person who either doesn’t bother to practice the accent or can’t, and simply doesn’t care. If you plan to actually use the target language, and you want people to understand you, then you’ll need to get the accent and pronunciation down. Listen to music in the target language, listen to a native or expert speaker (chances are the latter has a pretty good accent and pronunciation), and sound it out to yourself. You could even learn to sing the alphabet in that language. Speaking German does not mean sounding like you’re screaming at someone or coughing up a hairball, and speaking Italian does not mean imitating Mario and Luigi.

2) Grammar, grammar, grammar, and more GRAMMAR! No matter what someone tells you about immersion and learning the language that way, grammar is always a solid way to start building your foundation for your non-native target language. Know how a basic sentence is structured, learn conjugations, and how inflections or declensions in adjectives and nouns work. There’s never been a more sure-fire way than a high-school or college-level textbook.

3) Vocabulary is a must. The same way English teachers and textbooks give you vocabulary lists upon vocabulary lists to build your own functional speaking arsenal in English, learning a language requires that you have a pretty expansive vocabulary across a wide variety of topics, and you can command a language easily in discussing them. Grade-school children in the countries where the target language is spoken already have a decent vocabulary, even if they’re not giving lectures on political science or something in their mother tongue. What you need to do is organize vocabulary lists or flashcard sets such as on Quizlet in relation to specific topics. There’s a reason foreign language textbooks teach you all sorts of words you think you’re not going to need to use in lists of related words. Ask someone to quiz you, because some people are aural and oral learners. Or you can quiz yourself and internalize the words by saying the word out loud as you say the word in the target language and then saying it in your native language (By the way, MIX THE CARDS UP, because you’ll just end up memorizing the order of the words instead of the words themselves).

4) Understand the culture on the linguistic level. Every language, particularly the Eastern languages of the Middle East and Asia, has some level of cultural context and understanding. There are all sorts of reasons why this matters, ranging from when you need to be formal to whether you actually understand idioms and customs. The latter reason is especially important, because this is a far more apparent aspect in the way people speak in the Middle East and Asia. Korean, for example, has four levels of formality in use, formerly seven, and if used improperly, can make you come across as pompous or extremely rude. Indian languages have an extreme taboo on discussing death, except in certain idioms or jokes involving death (both of which are pretty rare). It’s always important to understand the culture of the native speakers of the language.

5) Practice with a native speaker or an expert in the target language. You are not going to get anywhere without being comfortable speaking with someone in the target language. Even now, I do not consider myself fluent in Spanish, even after having studied for six years, due to my rather limited vocabulary and mostly because I am not entirely comfortable speaking with others in Spanish. Speaking with a native or expert is the best way to learn the rhythm of the language, and how people intone and generally use their vocabulary.

6) If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times. REVIEW. I can’t stress how important it is to review your old material to keep your vocabulary and grammar fresh in your mind. You are human, and that means you are more than likely to forget things.

7) Write your own notes. From experience, I can say that reading other people’s notes or just reading from a book doesn’t help. For a lot of people, writing out their notes internalizes the material. And when I mean write, I actually mean, handwrite your notes. Typing them out isn’t as good as taking pen/pencil to paper. Besides, your written notes are more portable than typed ones. And when you go back to review, or explain something to someone else learning the same language as you, reading over the material written in your own words is much better for comprehension and retention.

8) This is kind of an extra, but it’s still important. Even if you don’t have the opportunity at the time that you’re learning, you should eventually aim to go to the place where the language is spoken widely. You don’t go to the middle of Pennsylvania to learn Tamil. You go to Tamil Nadu, where the language is most prevalent, written everywhere, and 95% of the time, the first person you pick off the street is a native speaker. By going to these places, you not only enjoy a new experience in traveling, you immerse yourself fully in the language and are forced to practice wherever you go. You also learn the cultural aspects of the language more deeply.

So, hopefully, you have an understanding of how to set out on a personal journey of learning a language fully and properly, now that you’ve read this!

Note: While I am not an avid supporter of the method, full immersion is a way that some people have used to learn languages. This involves forcing yourself to speak with other people who speak the language, learning from your mistakes, and building your vocabulary slowly but surely. I personally believe that this isn’t entirely effective, if you don’t already have some foundation for the target language. This is a part of my rationale for why grammar is so important to cultivating a foundation for the target language.

Anyway, thanks for reading!