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As an adult, I'm working on learning French, coming from a background growing up speaking a few languages natively. According to French friends of mine I practice with, I have a "good" accent, but I've never been a big fan of "good". So to me this begs a question:

Given a few more years of work, could I as an adult reach the point where as far as, say, 95% of native speakers can tell from my accent, I'm Parisian by birth?

Note:

I was strongly encouraged to repost this question from Linguistics SE, where it is equally applicable and I'd expect to get answers from a different perspective. I really appreciate the time and effort!

  • Great question! Welcome to Language Learning! – fi12 Nov 8 '17 at 22:49
  • @fi12 Thanks! :) – TheEnvironmentalist Nov 8 '17 at 22:50
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    For an adult, no. Too many obstacles: even if you are able to pronounce sounds in isolation correctly, you also need to learn how to make necessary changes to those sounds in connected speech. Then there’s prosody, nothing to say about dialectal, gender etc. variation. To make it worse, there also are cognitive constraints. – Alex B. Nov 14 '17 at 14:33
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    @AlexB. It is inappropriate to post answers as comments. If you have evidence that adults cannot learn a foreign language without an accent, please post it in an answer. – Christophe Strobbe Dec 27 '17 at 4:37
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It is definitely possible. There are many language learners who have learned an L2 from birth or a very young age, and thus, have mastered the pronunciation in the language. Others have years of exposure to the L2 inside the home, conversing with native speakers.

However, for non-native speakers who have not been learning the language for a long period of time, here are some steps to reach a native level of pronunciation.

  1. Focus on the pronunciation early on in the learning process. The more grammar and vocabulary you learn without working on your pronunciation, the harder it will be to correct bad habits you will have made when speaking.
  2. Immerse yourself in the target language. If it is possible to move to an area where the language is commonly spoken, do so. If not, listen to songs and watch films in the language, and try to pick up on subtle nuances in the speech. Simple audiobooks are another great tool as well. Look into conversing with native speakers through Skype or in person.
  3. Study minimal pairs in the language. Minimal pairs are pairs of words that, except for one syllable, sound the same; studying them can help reduce the confusion between them and help cement the difference in your mind.
  4. Learn the IPA. Knowing it will allow you to use pronunciation guides tailored to your specific language, and you can ensure that you are producing the correct sounds.
  5. The most important factor of all, however, is to practice constantly. In doing so, you can ensure you don't lose the progress that you have made, and over time, your pronunciation will improve.
  • I actually tend to think IPA is a very bad choice for mastering pronunciation, because it tends to oversimplify sounds to a point that's fantastic for being understood by others, but doesn't catch the dialect-specific and language-specific nuances properly – TheEnvironmentalist Nov 8 '17 at 23:50
  • @TheEnvironmentalist That's a good point that I overlooked. – fi12 Nov 8 '17 at 23:51
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    @TheEnvironmentalist That feels like a straw man to me. All pronunciation descriptions for learners are simplified to a point that they miss out nuances and details, but IPA-based ones are generally less simplified than ones based on transliteration. If you want to read up on the detailed nuances of pronunciation in a given language, you’ll almost certainly need IPA, too. So I’d say IPA is a very useful tool for mastering pronunciation, as long as you’re cognisant of the limitations in how IPA is used in different contexts. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 12 '18 at 12:19
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes and no. Yes in that IPA is a very, very useful tool in the right hands, no in that in most hands, it tends to displace better tools. A non-IPA user trying to learn the sounds of a language will tend toward recordings of native speakers, likely the best source for phonology in any context. An IPA user, on the other hand, will turn toward his/her knowledge of IPA. "So the French 'r' in most dialects is a voiced uvular fricative. Gotcha." But the IPA user will find he/she never quite eliminates his/her "IPA accent" while his non-IPA counterpart sounds natural as can be. – TheEnvironmentalist May 14 '18 at 0:16
  • @JanusBahsJacquet IPA is a great shortcut, in that it can reduce the time to learn the basic phonology of a language from months to hours. However, the drawback in this approach is that the IPA is really just a set of boxes drawn around the human sound continuum, much as musical notes are just points picked and labeled out of the frequency continuum. While IPA users will tend to be understandable in their target language in no time flat, their time to eliminating their accent completely, as is the subject of the question, can often exceed that of non-IPA users because the IPA becomes a crutch. – TheEnvironmentalist May 14 '18 at 0:19
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It is possible, but I am not aware of many adult learners who have achieved this (in spite of watching many YouTube videos about language learning).

The example that always come to mind is Dashan or Mark Rowswell, a Canadian who started learning Chinese at university and became so good at it that he could do xiangsheng or "crosstalk", a Chinese type of stand-up comedy. The funny thing is that Mark Roswell sometimes meets Chinese people who say that his Chinese is not as good as Dashan's, while others say his Chinese is better than Dashan's. (See for example the interview The Most Famous Foreigner in China on YouTube.)

Liam Bates, who has worked as a television host in China, may be another example. (I can't judge his accent; check for example 跟着老外回家乡:第一集 on YouTube.)

Danielle Swisher's guest post How To Speak A Foreign Language Without An Accent on the Mezzofanti Guild describes her experience of getting rid of her American accent in French. She made the following changes in practicing her French:

  1. She listened more closely to the people she spoke with, to people on radio stations and on tv and to her teachers. She also mimicked native speakers: not only the sounds they made but also how they moved their mouth and their body language.
  2. She watched native speakers in action. This also included watching how the greeted and parted from each other, their facial expressions and body language.
  3. Finally, she "practiced using these techniques, sometimes for hours in front of the mirror, and/or with a recorder."

The result was that roughly six months later, people in France started to assume that she was a native speaker of French.

So if you already have a "good accent", forget IPA, forget "minimal pairs" (unless your friends tell you that your pronunciation sometimes causes confusion) and start mimicking people and audio recordings.

  • While Dashan’s Chinese is excellent—his vocabulary, grammar, and speaking style could easily pass for a native speaker—his pronunciation would not be likely to fool native Mandarin speakers for long. His pronunciation is very, very good, and very natural; but there is still something there that gives it away that he is in fact not a native speaker. A native speaker talking to him on the phone would probably notice after perhaps half a minute that there’s something ineffable about his accent or his rhythm or something that sounds slightly different. Still, he comes very close. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 12 '18 at 12:32
3

You can improve and get close, very refined, very mild, but getting an indistinguishable-from-native accent in adulthood is so rare as to be practically unheard of.

And in my experience, there's a large talent factor. I know that's not a popular opinion, but I believe it is the actual truth. Everyone can improve, but that doesn't mean some people aren't just better at it to begin with and can reach a higher level given the exact same effort. That's just how it works.

A highly refined foreign accent is usually somewhat charming though. Don't worry. Just aim for native but don't berate yourself for falling short.

2

It is possible. But very few people achieve native-like pronunciation.

Example: There is a popular Russian TV host Vladimir Pozner. He grew up in US. His parents spoke French at home. When Vladimir was 18, his father decided to return to USSR and Vladimir had to learn Russian. Not only he mastered the language and pronunciation, he became a very popular TV host.

From my personal observation, people who master the accent also have musical ear. They hear the nuances of other person's speech and are able to mimic it.

2

Personally, I've never met someone who learned German as an adult (or even teenager) without accent. Some level of accent was always audible.

Regarding TV or radio hosts: there have been many popular TV hosts in Germany with foreign roots and VERY noticeable accents.

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