How To Speak A Foreign Language Without An Accent
- Written byDonovan Nagel
- Read time6 mins
Today we have another guest post by Danielle Swisher.
Danielle has published five books including Murder on O’Hollow’s Eve and Other Short Stories (which is a collection of short stories inspired by her life in France, Boston, Everglades City, Florida and South Carolina), and a poetry collection on love and loss called When You Were Here.
Today she’s adding to her French immersion story talking about how she perfected her French accent. 🙂
During the first few days I started my immersion program at CIEF in 2006, my French was more textbook savvy than practical.
This included my accent which didn’t give me away as an American, but as British.
I remember one occasion in September 2006, when I went to a chocolaterie near Dijon’s Rue des Forges.
I had ordered some almond bark, and ended up staying after my purchase to chat with the proprietors and other customers in French.
Towards the end of the conversation, one of the customers who overheard me asked me:
“Are you British?
I told her the truth:
“No, I’m American but part French on my paternal grandmother’s side.”
I didn’t feel bad being mistaken for being British rather than American, but I wanted a real French accent.
I did make a lot of changes in an effort to make any sign of my English-speaking education disappear when I spoke French.
When I made these changes, I wasn’t sure if they’d work. However, in March 2007, I got the biggest compliment of my life while on vacation in Venice. At the time, I was staying in a hostel located across the Grand Canal, overlooking the train station.
A couple from the Normandy region of France had just checked-in, and were benefiting from the complimentary coffee and pastries our hostel offered that morning.
The wife decided to strike up a conversation with me, purely in French. I shall offer a snippet of this conversation (with translations) to show you why it blew me away.
After all, she had no idea where I was from, and she wasn’t multilingual yet this conversation changed my life forever.
Here’s how it went:
Wife: “Good morning, how are you?”
Me: “Good morning, madam. I am well, and you?”
Wife: “I’m well. What region [of France] are you from?”
When she asked me what region of France I was from, I just about flipped out! By this time period, I had lived in France for about seven months.
I have known people who have lived in the United States for years, including my maternal grandfather (whom I never met however I know this from oral family history) that never lost their accents.
I had always worked with the goal of losing my American accent with Spanish and French, but never had anyone mistake me really for a native speaker in such a workaday way as this woman from Normandy did that fateful morning.
This question was so out of the blue for me, I wasn’t sure how to answer! I finally told her the truth, as I did for that customer back in Dijon six months earlier, but with more detail:
“Uh, I am American, Madam, from Florida in the United States in reality! However, I have been living in France for the past seven months. First I lived in Dijon and now in Aix-en-Provence in order to study French.”
Her response, and the look in her face was priceless. Her eyes widened with bewilderment and surprise.
This was reflected in her voice when she told me:
“But, your accent is perfect! You speak like a French woman!”
You can probably imagine what I felt when this woman I had just met, a native French speaker, told me that she found my accent to be so flawless, that there’s no way I could be mistaken for a foreigner.
This warmed my heart, showing me that the changes I had made really worked.
The changes I made in practicing my French accent that made it sound authentic
So, what did I do, you are probably wondering?
First, I listened more.
One way to pronounce better and get rid of your native language’s accent when you speak a foreign language is just to listen to the differences.
How I listened more was that I listened closely to the people I spoke with, to the music CDs, radio stations and television stations I listened to, and to how my teachers spoke. When I listened more, I was able to hear how French native speakers pronounced certain words and letters.
Listening to how real native speakers pronounce words, letters, and phrases helped me with the second change I made, which was to mimic what I heard native speakers do.
In regards to mimicking, I mimicked not only sounds.
I also mimicked the way I moved my mouth, positioned my tongue and my lips – even body language.
What helped with mimicking even the way I moved my mouth, tongue, lips and body came from the third change I made, which was to watch native speakers in action. Watching native speakers not only came from the ones I interacted with.
After all, a great pastime in France is to people watch. 🙂
One of the greatest tools I used for learning French was just to watch native speakers interact with one another.
I listened to their pronunciation, intonation, and also watched how they greeted and parted from each other. I watched how they reacted when they talked about certain things in regards to facial expressions and body language.
I also watched what their mouths looked like when they pronounced certain words, and said certain phrases.
These things I observed, I mimicked and adapted with my own efforts to speak French.
However, it took more than just mimicking, listening and watching what native speakers did differently from me. It also took practice, which is the fourth thing I changed.
I practiced using these techniques, sometimes for hours in front of the mirror, and/or with a recorder. This is an old musician’s trick, something I learned in my efforts to master the violin and piano.
I also thought the sounds in my head while reading and writing.
These techniques work with languages too – more so than I ever thought until I met that couple from Normandy.
It took all of these changes to make what happened that fateful March morning in 2007 possible.
They’ve stuck: I still get confused as a French citizen by every native French speaker I encounter.
Non-native French speakers who overhear me speak French, immediately ask me if I’m from France, or they tell me:
“You speak English very well. Where did you learn English?”
I am currently applying these techniques towards learning German and Polish. So far, I haven’t had a negative critique on my accent, nor on my speaking abilities even though right now, they are limited.
You can incorporate these changes into your daily language learning.
What it takes to make that happen though is to know how much of your native accent is showing through while you speak your foreign language. Therefore, if you are corrected by a native speaker on pronunciation, don’t feel bad.
They are truly helping you to speak the language well and taking their critique to heart is something you just need to practice.
Take it as a challenge, not as a bullying session.
See it as a chance to better observe and start practicing what you need to in order to correct your pronunciation so that you can get your own inquiry one day.
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I’ve started learning French lately and have been practicing my pronunciation, which suddenly reminded me of this article and your comment, which made me want to reread everything and see if I can now spot for myself this time all the French errors everybody mentioned. Looked up the article, and, sure enough, she stealth-edited all the French from it, so your comment is now the only remaining artifact left of the author’s stuff-that-never-happened land. Cheers
Just thought I’d post a belated update here for clarity: we had a guest write this article ages ago. Turns out it had an embarassing error in the French (our bad for failing to check it before hitting publish). We removed it, but left the rest of the article up. Needless to say, our policy on checking guest contributions has become a lot stricter since.
The french examples given here have lots of mistakes of all kind. Like others have mentioned, this affects the credibility of the article. It shouldn’t be too late to correct them.
No amount of correct pronunciation can cover for the fact that many sentences are very incorrect, like this one: “j’habitait au france pour sept moi maintenant en Dijon et après, en Aix-en-Provence.” As a native french speaker, I would struggle to understand what is meant by this phrase.
HI, I am currently a french beginning learner. Do you have any recommendation of resources that I can use to mimic the voice/mouth? Merci!
Sorry but no. I can believe that Danielle writes good fiction, because her reported coversations come from the realm of fantasy. No French native speaker will respond to a phrase like “ j’habitait au france pour sept moi maintenant” with “vous parlez française (sic) comme une Française”. To get “j’habite en France depuis sept mois maintenant” right is solid A2 level, no higher. I get that her spelling errors don’t come through while speaking, but the lexical and grammatical ones do, and will instantly show her as a non-native, no matter how good her accent. Every phrase she has written here beyond “bonjour, ça va” is strewn with such errors. There is just no way that every French native she speaks to thinks that she is French. Confidence will take you a long way with learning a language, and there is nothing wrong with the tips she gives here, but claiming to be constantly taken for a native speaker in her case can only be an outright falsehood, and that doesn’t do service to other learners who are on this otherwise excellent site looking for guidance.
Ooh boy I thought this was satire when I hit “Vous-est anglaise?” and it just kept going from there.
I’d bet anything that the author is able to convincingly pronounce “Bonjour, madam. Ça va bien, et vous?”, and upon hearing her attempt to say anything else, the wife’s “eyes widened with bewilderment and surprise” as she realized her mistake, but it was too late to politely do anything but play along.
Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to wait for the day I get my own “du quel region est-vous?” inquiry 😒
I feel sure Danielle’s French pronunciation was better than her written French. It must have been because her French spelling is abysmal.
Should it be “Du quel région êtes-vous?”
The texts are full of mistakes.
”De quelle région êtes-vous?” Would be correct, “ vous êtes de quelle région” would be more usual, but her French is just horrible, don’t use any of it as a guide!
The French text here is riddled with mistakes but goes to show that even if your grammar is dodgy, if you nail the accent you can still come across as very fluent
Nice article about pronunciation.
It blows my mind when I think and have a glimpse of what could have been if I spoke an outstanding English, Dutch, whatever, without an accent.
I speak English for a while now, but like any other Brazilian, we don’t have the time or opportunity to spend quality hours with a native of our target language. Therefore, Italki is wonderful in that regard.
But yes, my long term goal is to achieve C2 in English. Short term and mid term goals are what I define to learn x words a day, 3 hours in italki, and you understand the rest. So, my question is how can I incorporate hours and hours in pronunciation practising into my day-to-day language learning? Or simply put, I should prioritise one goal and stick to that?
By the way, the article was How To Speak A Foreign Language Without An Accent.
I really hope I can hear from you, any time soon
Jerome Francis Bauer
I really loved this blog post! I am trying to learn the Italian dialect from Naples which is different from Standard Italian. I’m sorry, step 4 wasn’t clear to me. I should listen and mimic in front of a mirror or just talk to myself in front of the mirror or try both? I am studying to become a Catholic Missionary and I need to be a polyglot. Peace to All! Brother Jerome Bauer, S.D.V. Keep up the good work!
Great post Danielle! Yes, attentively listening to and mimicking conversation partners is a great way for improving your accent. That’s why we also very much encourage recording your own voice and trying to mimicking the native speakers you hear.
I was quite pleased when standing in line at the Brussels railway station a few years ago and talking with the man behind me, he asked: “Vous êtes Belge?”. It turned out he was from Paris, while I, a native German speaker, had learned my French living in Switzerland over 30 years ago ( and since then living in the US).
It’s obviously much easier - some may say even the only way - to speak with a “native” accent when you live in the country where the language is spoken.
You will, quite likely, then also pick up the local accent and expressions, which in, my case, may have been the way the Belges and French Swiss pronounce numbers above 70...