Why you have an accent when you speak a foreign language – IPA 101

A team of scientists have shown that babies can distinguish any human sound. But then they lose this ability. Their brains build neuronal connexions only for the sounds of the language(s) they are exposed to growing up.

Remember the last time you decided to start jogging again? Or when you started going to the gym? Remember how you felt the next day? Your legs were sore, and you could barely lift up your arms. That’s because you hadn’t used these muscles in a very long time (or ever).

The same thing happens when you start learning a foreign language. You have probably never used the muscles involved (your tongue, your throat, your jaw, …) this way. There’s no secret magic trick to trill a Spanish r, or to master the deep greasy French r. All it takes is the right instructions and some practice to recondition your muscles.

The question now is: How?

How do you learn the new sounds specific to your target language?

Where do you find the right instructions?

You don’t have to pay hundreds, or thousands of dollars for a personal language coach. You’re not a movie star. And to be honest, you don’t need to.

Instead, you will use a simple system called the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). It’s a simple alphabet where each letter represents a sound.

Here’s an example:

English: I love Pitch Perfect.

IPA: aɪ lʌv pɪtʃ pɜːfɪkt

Each language has its own IPA system. The letters (the symbols) are the same across every language. But, since each language has a specific pronunciation, all the letters don’t appear with every language. For example, the trilled r appears in Spanish, but not in American English.

So the reason why you have an accent is because you are using your native IPA system to speak your target language. But your native language and your target language are different, and thus have different IPA systems. Your first task is to get familiar with these two IPA systems (native and target). Your first task is to analyze your target language’s IPA, and pay attention to the symbols that don’t appear in your native language’s IPA. Pay attention to the sounds that don’t exist in your native language. The IPA is just a convenient way to write pronunciation. We put the sounds on paper, and distinguish languages by their group of symbols (sounds). Then it becomes easy to compare two different pronunciation systems.

I can already hear you: « Phew, seems like a big headache! Do I really have to learn all those weird symbols? »

Well, I’m glad you asked. Because the answer is no.

It’s intuitive. All you need to do is listening to the different sounds, and reading the instructions of the sounds you don’t know.

You can find any language’s IPA online. Go to Wikipedia, and search for « [language] phonology », where [language]=French, Spanish,…whatever your native/target language is.  Read the phonology page of your native language as well. And compare the two pages. Spot the sounds you aren’t used to. Read their instructions, and practice. You can also find tutorials on YouTube. Type something like “how to trill spanish r,” and you will find many videos with different tips.

Here you have the IPA vowel chart with audio. This chart shows you all the vowels. And you can click on any symbol to hear it and get a description of how to make it. Practice pronouncing one vowel of your choice, and then switching to another one without interruption. That’s how you will learn what role your tongue plays in your mouth to make all the different sounds.

 

The goal is not to master these sounds perfectly. The goal is communication. If your accent is too heavy, no one will understand you. But if you pay attention and make an effort, you will be able to communicate. Even with a slight accent.

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