Ditch the accent
October 13, 2021 2:34 PM   Subscribe

I have a thick foreign accent in my mother tongue. How can I target this problem specifically so I can sound more like a native speaker? I've considered hiring a tutor online and/or recording myself speaking and listening to those tapes... Curious if anyone can recommend the most effective way to do this.

- In case it's relevant, the language I'm trying to get better at is Mandarin.
- I live in NYC in case anyone has local recommendations.
- I'm not interested in focusing on vocab/grammar. The accent is the bottleneck right now - my vocab/knowledge is way better than I sound.
- Willing to spend money on this.
posted by estlin to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think a tutor would be the way to go. That way you can identify what exactly are the pronunciation stumbling blocks, especially what phonemes in Mandarin are posing the most trouble. I am a diasporic Korean with relatively good accent in Korean and when I casually tutored non-diasporic friends in Korean (for enjoying Kpop and Korean films) it was immediately clear that aspirated and tense consonants were causing the most difficulty since a native English speaker wouldn't be sensitized to those distinctions.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:46 PM on October 13

This resource looks helpful by the way re: phonemes. 听一听 (Ting Yi Ting; Listening Makes Perfect) is an online guide that enables learners to hear and identify phonemic categories in Mandarin, including lexical tones, in a variety of phonetic contexts, and to associate those phonemes with correct Pinyin orthography.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:51 PM on October 13

I have a Russian colleague who has a thick accent, and she has been working with a tutor. It's definitely made an improvement. Certainly hasn't erased her accent but I find her much easier to understand now.
posted by radioamy at 2:53 PM on October 13

IMHO, you need a f2f or at least, a live video tutor who can

1) Teach you to proper way to form phoneme with your mouth bits,

2) Can hear you making the accent, and thus, correct you when you say the stuff, like "more tongue", or such in terms that you understand.

I grew up speaking Mandarin, and as a result having no problem picking up other languages. I can imagine people who grew up speaking English can't pick up the more subtle differences.
posted by kschang at 2:56 PM on October 13

I think a tutor would be the way to go, you need someone who can hear the difference between the sounds you're making and the sounds you're trying to make and then explain what you need to change. I did wonder if a dialect coach (that is, someone an actor might use) would be helpful. It is mainly just a matter of understanding and practising where to put your tongue and teeth and what pitch progression to do with your vocal chords, so it should be possible.
posted by plonkee at 2:58 PM on October 13

When living in a foreign country, I was able to improve my accent when I realized that I was afraid of making fun of theirs.

Normally, we're taught not to make fun of foreigners' accents. If I were to speak to my Chinese co-worker in an exaggerated Chinese accent, I'd be talking to HR - hopefully not with a Chinese accent - very quickly.

But what is a Chinese accent? It's what you get when a person who is used to speaking Chinese attempts to speak English. It's caused by the fact that you use different sounds, mouth positions, and vocalizations in Chinese than you do with English.

So, to generate those sounds, vocalizations, and mouth positions, you need to push past the feeling that you're 'making fun' of their accent. This will probably work best if you have another Chinese speaker who can help you work on the nuances, but it's something to think about.
posted by Hatashran at 3:40 PM on October 13 [4 favorites]

Ideally you'd be able to find an accent coach. They definitely exist, often working with actors but also with people in your situation, or people who are first-language speakers but speak with a less prestigious accent and feel that's holding them back in their careers or socially. I don't know how easy they are to come by, but I'd try looking around, and networking with any Mandarin speakers who might know someone who knows someone. Good accent coaches will know how to explain where you're off, what to do with all your mouth/throat parts to get it right, how to get used to speaking that way, and so on.
posted by trig at 4:23 PM on October 13

I actually know a very good accent coach in the NY area. He's not a native Mandarin speaker, but his Mandarin accent is incredible and, most importantly, he has an incredible ear, and can give you very actionable feedback on what you are doing. He mainly works with movies and tv, but does do 1:1 stuff. Pricy though. If interested, memail me!

Otherwise, in general there are accent coaches that help with this sort of thing. They can be hard to find, though, and quite expensive.

While I think having an accent coach is really helpful, there are other ways to do this. Generally, the technique is called shadowing. The general ideal is pretty simple: you find lots of recordings of people whose mandarin you want to sound like, then you speak along with them a lot until you can copy it exactly. It's quite tedious, but can be quite effective. There is a lot online about shadowing techniques and stuff. The next level is to record yourself and really analyze where you and the recording differ, then focus on trying to eliminate those differences.

I do think a part of the process is accepting you will likely not get 100% there...but you can make a lot of improvements with the above. But be prepared for it to be a very long, very tedious process. Each additional 1% of improvement is exponentially difficult. But it's absolutely doable--it's just that most people (including myself!) do not really have the grit to put in the effort necessary. But it's clearly possible: look at all the brits with incredibly accurate american accents.
posted by wooh at 11:46 PM on October 13

Speech Language Pathologists work with helping people make the mouth and throat shapes needed to achieve particular phonemes. This might be a helpful route for you.
posted by bilabial at 10:12 AM on October 14

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