How to feel comfortable when you speak a second language? How important should pronunciation, intonation and accent be to a second language speaker? Are those who speak with a close to native-pronunciation accent better speakers? (a state which every language learner would like to get to). What else matters?
I remember how important it was for me to mimic my language teachers and my foreign friends to get a good pronunciation when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Modern Languages (English and French). I really wanted to “sound” like a native speaker, that is to say, to be fluent, with “perfect” pronunciation and accent. For this reason, I tried to speak with as many foreigners as possible every chance I had, and I followed every single rule and advice given by my instructors; consequently, I acquired good basic pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and some idioms.
To fulfill this objective, I did lots of phonetic exercises in class and at home. I made weird noises and exaggerated faces in front of the mirror trying to get the right sounds; for example, I would cover my nose with the tips of my fingers to produce the “ing” nasal sound, which does not exist in Spanish. Besides, I learned tongue twisters, songs and poems too.
In addition, I bit my lower lip with my upper teeth to make the “v” sound of the English and French languages, which does not exist in Spanish either. And I looked for the “r” sound in my mouth imitating the onomatopoeia of some people's snoring. I also did exercises holding a piece of paper quite close to my lips to control the production of the voiced sound of initial “p” and “t” letters. Besides, I used to exaggerate my smile when pronouncing double “ee” as my teachers suggested, to get the right English sound. All these gestures were so unusual to family and friends, that when they saw me practicing, they overflowed with laughter and even affirmed that I was becoming "weird".
Apart from all those phonetic exercises to improve in language production, I participated in language clubs that sometimes were religion-oriented; for that reason, I did not find them very amusing, as they were mostly focused on issues and points of view that I did not share at all; but I would stay there because I definitely wanted to improve my conversational level.
But it still was not enough to “sound” like a foreigner as I kept having my mother tongue accent and intonation, what made me feel disappointed and unhappy. And although I improved a lot and communicated more and more easily with foreign-language speakers, it was still kind of frustrating.
However, after studying different types of teaching/learning strategies, through the practice acquired over many years, and taking conversation and phonetics courses, but mostly interacting not only with native Americans, Australians, English, French and Canadians, but also Chinese, Belgians, Japanese, Germans, etc., I finally came to the conclusion that speaking a language correctly is not a matter of accent and intonation.
Being good at speaking a language has to do with what I had already learned: language rules, having good phonetics f0r the basic sounds produced in the target language that allow you to understand each other; having a wide range of vocabulary, idioms, and even the capacity to paraphrase (use other words to express the same idea) when a word/phrase is not understood at first. And finally, to really understand what is said “between lines”.
My participation in different educational contexts has led me to understand that as adult speakers, we have learned our mother tongue accent and intonation and they are almost impossible for an adult to be changed, with some exceptions.
Therefore, I have learned and taught my pupils, who will also become second language speakers, that a good teacher not necessarily speaks as a native speaker, but he/she is able to lead his learners’ understanding and even get to their emotions, gaining their confidence to interact, to improve their language skills, to have the necessary tools to progress in language learning. All those skills together are the best reason to feel the pride of the language.
Some recommendations that come out from my previous experience _ and could be taken into account by my colleagues and language learners _ are listed below:
Make mistakes, it is unavoidable! They will lead you to self correction and, therefore, to the improvement of your current skills.
Remember that as an adult, you learn a language in a way which is different from that of children. This fact will influence your accent and intonation. You will have to make a different kind of effort to understand language and rules, while as a child, you just acquire the language naturally because of the brain flexibility that is lower and lower as people get older and older.
When you speak a second language, you count on one of the nine types of intelligences, the communicative one! Feel proud of speaking a second language, not everyone can do it or does it!