How to sound like a native

How hard is it for an adult non-native English speaker with a very heavy accent to learn how to sound like a native.

Let’s say you are working with a language coach over several years, could you achieve it, or is it basically impossible once you are old enough? Maybe it depends on the person and their language/pronounciation skills in general?

This advert offers to teach you Estuary English, RP, Brooklyn, and two American Southern accents in five weeks. It is apparently not for complete beginners, though.

Depends who’s teaching them! But I guess it needs long-term exposure to the sort of accent you hope to gain. What kind of heavy accent? I don’t know what accent you have, DM, but I’ll bet it’s not the same as mine (regional UK English).

Many ‘foreign’ English speakers coming to the UK will develop a US English accent, owing to extensive exposure to US movies and TV.

I’ve recently been in conversation with several EFL teachers who are teaching Ukrainian visitors (not refugees!!), with public/charitable support. It’s evident that there’s a big premium for native English English teachers over ‘import’ teachers, sometimes directly expressed as snobbery.

One of the ladies who explained this to me is a Ukrainian teacher with a higher (Ukrainian) degree in English as well as teaching qualifications and broad experience.

The other, who regards herself as a ‘native’ English speaker has a strong Scots accent! Although she can ‘la-di-da’ herself if necessary.

Something I learnt rather a while ago (and therefore subject to revision) is that as infants we lose the ability to recognise and process phonemes that are not part of the language being spoken around us and we are learning. This loss is hard if not impossible to remedy. It leads to some of the very clear oddities in accents we hear in non-native English speakers. And what they hear in our feeble attempts to speak their languages.

The posts above are about teaching a native English speaker new accents. Which may still be a problem (how the heck you would teach anyone a Glaswegian accent is beyond me), but nothing on starting with a different basis of spoken atoms.

I have a Norwegian accent, but I was not asking specifically about me. I also see many immigrants to Norway, who have been here for many years, and been exposed to the language for all that time, still have a heavy accent.

I know you learn a lot of language skills as a child, but I was wondering if it is possible to learn the language so you can pass as a native speaker say after 30.

EDIT: I also wonder then if I should get my children exposed to the English language from a very early age in order to develop a better accent.

I would naively expect starting from scratch (as an adult) to be, not easy, but basically you just go by the tape to pick up all those Martian syllables. But if someone developed an atrocious accent from watching too much (or not enough!) TV or some other ad-hoc environment, they have all that to unlearn.

It is known that some people can do it, but on the other hand that does not mean it is easy or that everyone will have an ear for accents.

It’s not just passive exposure, but requires practicing speaking the language yourself. Every language course I have taken put an emphasis on that, including improvising dialogue.

We had a Norwegian instructor in Computer Science at the University of Toronto; even back in 1983, he mentioned that he took several of his final year University classes in English -t he instructor offered the class a choice. In those days, native language computer materials would have been harder to find. It can’t hurt to expose someone to multiple languages at an earlier age.

Neal Stephenson in one of his novels has a Hungarian character looking over a magazine stand and wondering at the extent of a language where there’s enough customers that they can produce a glossy thick magazine on a topic as obscure as model railroading. I imagine Norwegian is not much different than Hungarian, except for the ease-of-comprehension factor.

When we were in Shanghai over a decade ago, we were approached on a major shopping street by some schoolkids whose task was to find a foreigner and engage in an English conversation. They had obviously been coached in good pronunciation; I had to tell them that I worked for a fellow who had come to Canada from Hong Kong 30 years earlier, and their English was far better than his.

My experience has been that “speak like a native” is quite variable. Some people achieve it, some never do. Practice and being around native-speaking people helps, trying helps, but like other skills I assume language is something that varies from person to person. For some it’s easy, for others - they will never get it.

One person - only half joking - had this advice for English-speakers trying to speak German: you can fake a German accent in English, so why not “fake” that accent when speaking German? I assume the same applies to those trying to shed an accent. OTOH, there’s a cadence and there’s accents on syllables. There are plenty of accents that are completely English. I like to joke that over a billion people speak English, but only the 25 million Anglophone Canadians speak it right.

This is correct, but one minor nitpick. The age that it happens is more like around 6 to 8 years old (a bit later for some people), not as infants. Not only do we lose the ability to hear phonemes, but we also actually start to process learning new languages with a different part of our brain.

The example commonly given for this is the Japanese confusion of R and L sounds. The Japanese language does not contain either of thee phonemes, but rather has a single phoneme that is basically kind of a cross between the two.

Once you get into your early teens, you have permanently lost the ability to learn new phonemes the way that you could as a child.

Getting back to the OP, you can learn to sound like a native, but it takes a lot of effort and also takes a bit of skill. Some people can do it more easily than others. It’s not something that can be done quickly. Your guess of working with a language coach for several years is probably in the right ballpark.

I think there’s definitely an element of truth to that. The trick is getting over the mental hurdle. It feels over-exaggerated, like you’re mocking the native language. So it’s easier (not just mentally but physically) to speak with your native inflections, hence why most people have an accent of some sort when speaking a second language. I suspect that’s also why people immersed in a second language (like an American living alone in a country where few people speak English) start to adopt that language’s accent when they speak English.

Of course you must also ask “just what IS native?” If you’re talking only about the broadest US English, UK English, French, German, etc. then I suppose that’s easier, but you’re likely to run afoul of local accents. Even as a native speaker, those can be incredibly subtle and hard to discern. Milwaukee has a specific accent that’s similar but not quite the same as the stereotypical Minnesota/Fargo accent. Chicago has some particular inflections, and it’s not at all like Milwaukee, but it’s more limited to the south side than the north side too. Cincinnati has a few words that get a slight twang to them, and there’s other idiosyncrasies only old-timers use (Cincinna-duh instead of Cincinna-tee, or “please?” instead of “what/excuse me?” for instance). That’s a high bar to reach.

It may be as difficult (but certainly not impossible) for an American with a strong regional accent to lose it over time and with a bit of effort.

For example, a Bostonian might recite “The rain in Spain falls mainly on Jamaica Plain.”

For me, speaking as a native would mean most people would not pick up on it not being your first language. It could of course be any regional accent of that language.

Back in high school we had a French teacher - who was actually French. He told a rather interesting story. He had grown up in occupied France, and had had a native German living with them, who taught him to speak German. Not well, but enough.

Years later he travelled to Germany and was hitch hiking. He got picked up by a truck driver who was really puzzled by my teacher. He could not understand why my old teacher would make stupid blunders in German, when from his accent he was clearly from a specific region of Germany. Of course this was the region where his teacher was from. My French teacher had learnt German with a strong accent, so much so that he could pass for native, if only he could actually speak the language.

It helps if you are a natural mimic. My Portuguese teacher kept telling me that I sounded like a native Brazilian. My son married a woman from Manchester, England, then moved her and her teen daughter to Wisconsin. The daughter got tired of being barraged with questions (and mocked about) her accent, so spent her home time watching videos and TV and practicing her pronunciation. I would defy anyone to guess that she was not from the USA.

Yes. I was trying to write a reply but saw your post and you nailed it.

I’ve read this too, but I’m pretty sure it’s not just unfamiliar phonemes we can’t recognize and use, but also familiar phonemes in unfamiliar places. Consider that the [s] sound exists in Spanish and is phonemic, but that sound never occurs at the beginning of a word in Spanish. Spanish speakers are often incapable (psychologically) of pronouncing words starting with /s/, so would pronounce the English word “school” as if it were spelled “eschool”. Similarly, Austrian German has a /z/ phoneme, but it’s devoiced at the beginning of words, so many Austrians would pronounce the English words “zipper” and “sipper” the same.

Here in Vienna I’ve been attending language courses for Russian, which, like English, allows /z/ in word-initial position. The textbooks, which are geared towards German native speakers, include a number of speaking exercises that try to get students used to hearing and applying the difference between /s/ and /z/ in words such as земля (zemlya, “earth”). In my class, only about half of the German-speaking students were able to make this distinction.

No, Spanish words don’t start with s+consonant. Siesta, sangria, etc., but escuela, España, Esteban (Steve), etc.

I agree with what several of you have said about imitating an accent in English when speaking a foreign language. At first, it does feel uncomfortable, as if you were mocking them or something, but it gets you on the right track insofar as cadence and tone.

I also agree that it’s hard to lose one’s accent beyond a very young age.

I kind of disagree with parts of the OP, firstly because there’s no factual answer (IMHO might be better). Secondly,

…most people would not pick up on it not being your first language.

You also have to consider how long the non-native is speaking. A minute or less might not be a problem. Longer than that would be a different story. And some people aren’t going to be scrutinizing others to the same degree. If you look like a native and don’t have a horrible accent, some people might not notice you’re a foreigner because they’re not paying attention to those things.

My mother is Norwegian, but has lived in the US since she was in her early 20s. She’s 80 now. She never gets asked where she’s from. Her English accent is nearly perfect. I can hear a few very subtle things, but strangers either don’t notice or think it’s just an idiosyncratic way she pronounces something. She’s had the same accent all my life, so I think it was just very good from the start. Starting to learn English in 4th grade is very helpful, I think, for those capable of learning the accent.

I heard Norwegian a bit when I was very young, and then moved to Norway at 6. We stayed for 3 and a half years. I am told I spoke like a native by the time we left.

In college, I took Norwegian as a foreign language. My pronunciation was spot on, but I had a child’s vocabulary. Most of my classmates who had little to no familiarity with Norwegian could not get the accent or the cadence, and many could not hear or pronounce the difference between “ø” and “u”. ("Jeg vil ha et glass ull.)

With my own kids, in preschool and first grade, they had a little instruction in Mandarin, and in Spanish, and I’ve taught them to roll their Rs, and to say “æ, ø, å.” My spouse and I occasionally teach them words or phrases in Norwegian or French, and they sometimes ask us about how to say something.

I have some facility with accents, and play around with them regularly. One of my kids likes to join in, and will have the same facility, I think. The other one is less interested, and would have a harder time with it I think.

All that to say, I think exposure to another language at a young age, and practice, can help immensely. It will help with not just that language, but also in learning other languages in the future. And, there is also a factor of what I suspect is natural ability, which may limit how much that exposure can help.

Certainly a good strategy, but be sure to avoid adding “Achtung!” or “Jawoll!” after every second sentence… :wink:

A good example of how people are different: My parents are Hungarian, but have lived in the US since their 20s, about 65 years. They still both have thick accents.

When I was a kid living at home, somehow I never noticed their accents. But I went away to college, and when I came home I heard their accents for the first time.

Nitpick: The sound [s] does exist in Spanish at the beginning of many words, the entry for “S” is one of the longest in Spanish dictionaries. What does not happen in Spanish phonetics at the beginning of a word is an “S” followed by a consonant (for instance P (sport → esport → deporte), T (stop → estop), K (school → escuela), N, M…).
According to my experience it is impossible to shed an accent after a certain age. I don’t even hear that I have an accent! And I have several, one at least for each language I speak. I had to ask, but so I was told that I have a German accent in English and a Spanish accent in Italian. But that is me, other people may have a finer tuned sense for accents and may at least know what they do wrong. As an adult it will be very difficult to correct though.
ETA: There is a language where it is feasible to sound like a native: Finnish. You just have to remain silent. Not everybody can do that though, it’s not as easy as you would think.