Hey – don’t waste your time on this unless you want to learn any language!
Seriously, this post is really only going to be worth reading if language learning matters to you. If not, find another post. Or buy my book. It’s rad.
Also, this is going to have the MOST impact on languages with a Roman alphabet. Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Bahasa plus tons more.
Lastly, credit where credit is due. I picked this up at this Skillshare class. I had begun to realize this on my own as I studied Portuguese in Brazil, but the class is what crystalized it for me.
So . . . .
Enter: KGB Liquor Guy
Think of the dude who has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, but STILL has that accent from where he grew up. You know the guy. I’m thinking of my liquor guy. Great dude – thick Russian accent. His store is called KGB. Hardcore.
Got that guy in your head? His English sounds kinda goofy. Makes the same mistakes. You get what he is saying, but immediately peg him as an outsider. Maybe you think he’s poorly educated. Maybe you find it endearing. Either way, you know right off the bat he doesn’t speak English so well . . .
Well that is EXACTLY how you will sound NO MATTER HOW LONG you practice another language. Seriously. Study like everyone else and you will sound like everyone else (read: the Russian liquor guy). I don’t care if it’s 5 months or 25 years. The way most of us learn language, you’re going to sound like a foreigner forever.
Want to break the cycle?
You have to LEARN DIFFERENTLY
Step 1) Make new mistakes. Forever.
I’m not talking about boring, old familiar mistakes. Like getting the gender of a noun wrong in Spanish. I’m talking about spectacular NEW mistakes.
“No duh! To learn ANYTHING you have to make mistakes!”
Yes, but you’re probably making those mistakes as a byproduct of trying to get it right. That’s the way our education system works. You try your hardest not to get something wrong. You take the safest route and maybe make small mistakes. When you do, you lose points.
Well our education system has set us up to SUCK with languages. Why?
Because to learn a language, you MUST make mistakes proactively!
Think of the KGB Russian guy. Dude makes mistakes all the time. But they are the SAME, BORING, PASSIVE mistakes. He’s not making NEW, PROACTIVE mistakes, like trying for the right construction and fucking it up. Or trying to pronounce a word differently. A word he knows people understand even though he pronounces it with an accent.
He’s like everyone else. Rather than stretch themselves, they stick to what they know is only SORT OF wrong.
THAT is why people can live in a country for 25 years and still have an accent. Because they stop improving as soon as their language skills are good enough not to be a daily hindrance.
If you want to be flawless, you need to push past good enough. You need to keep learning, to keep making NEW mistakes, even once you can communicate decently.
Stop taking pride in how good you are today and start fucking up again. That’s how you get better.
Step 2) Build your own alphabet
How do you say “please” in Spanish? You’ve heard it literally thousands of times. Say it out loud . . .
“Por favor,” right?
WRONG! If you haven’t studied Spanish, I guarantee you just said it with an accent.
How is that possible? How can you mess it up when it is so simple? When every Spanish-speaking person you have ever heard said it differently than the way you just did? (FYI the mistake I guarantee you made is with the”r”s on the end. They are softer. Not nearly as strong as the English “r.”)
So, I repeat: why do we continue to fuck it up, even after hearing the correct version literally thousands of times???
Because the spelling screws us up. We remember it is spelled “p-o-r(space)f-a-v-o-r.” And when we say it we approximate with our American accents. The “r”s in Spanish and English sound close enough to our ear that we just substitute the American “r.”
But those two “r”s do NOT sound alike to a Spanish speaking person. They are as different and mistaken as Russian KGB’s accent is to you. Say it with a hard English “r,” and you are immediately are flagged. Your accent is unmissable.
The solution? How can you override the instinct to use English sounds?
FORGET ABOUT THE DAMN SPELLING. That shit will fuck you up every time. It will get in your head and keep you pronouncing words incorrectly for 25 years!
You need to make your own phonetic alphabet. And you need to consciously realize when sounds DO NOT have an English correlate and account for them. So the sound of the single Spanish “r” needs it’s own designation. You need to remember it is a soft r. I personally use “rh.”
So when I think of por favor, I think of “porh favorh.” Sound comes out right every time.
Your alphabet needs to be personal, based on the sounds you are currently capable of making. It also needs to account for new sounds to help you learn them and remember them.
Do this with all the new sounds in a foreign language. Many will share letters but have a nuanced pronunciation. By truly listening instead of referring to spelling, you’ll crush your accent lickety split.