Sunday, January 2, 2022

Improving Your Foreign Language Accent

Spoiler: this is a follow-up to this.

It's a cherished activity for my friends in Spain to give me crap over my lousy Spanish. I'm lazy with verb forms, lazy with vocabulary, and lazy with accent (other than that, not bad).

"Should I speak like a TV newsreader?" I once asked, launching into a loud, stiffly pompous, basso profundo mockery, ostentatiously trilling my "rr"s, wrapping my vowels in rich corinthian leather, and popping my bilabial plosives like spitting ping-pong balls.

"THAT'S IT!!" hollered all pals present. Even the otherwise disinterested bartender cocked an approving eyebrow. I was so startled that I waited a few moments to see whether they were putting me on. They weren't. The highly affected accent I'd just tried on wasn't an absurd spoof of Spanish. It was Spanish. The way I normally speak was under-exaggerated and under-affected.

You're not speaking a language correctly until you worry you might cause offense by lathering it on much, much, much too thickly. If you speak some French, you gotta Inspector Clouseau that mo-fo.

Beneath this all was a deeper issue. The ostentatious approach didn't sound like me. I'm not that person. I don't talk that way. Sure, I speak Spanish. That's something I'd do. But the crisply fricative articulation - the full Ricardo Montalban - is something I'd do only mockingly. Speaking Spanish correctly meant sounding like someone other than me.

I still don't, by the way. I continue to slur my half-assed Spanish with the whiny slack-jawed laziness of a cool daddy NYC jazz musician. 'Cuz that's what I am. Even though I no longer live in NYC and am no longer a jazz musician. That's the character. That's this Jim Leff guy, I guess.

As I explained last time, adults have trouble learning because learning requires "changing from the type of person who doesn't speak French to a person who pretentiously trills "No no no no no!" through pursed lips."

And the inhibition is powerful, because people imagine that if they're not THIS PERSON (this character they made themself forget they chose to play) they'd be lost or erased or snuffed or fallen-off-a-cliff into a dark pit of non-existence. "We inhibit it with all our might," I noted, "hooking it in to our very survival instinct."

To understand the power of this inhibition, consider this. I play my character particularly lightly. While most people are so invested they forget they're even posing, I barely suspend disbelief. Plus, again, I do speak Spanish (that's something I'd do!). Yet, even still, I can't make myself go full Montalban, because it's out of character.

I've shared this tip with many friends who speak heavily-accented English. I ask them to IMITATE an American. They always manage it surprisingly well. And they always express surprise, wrinkle their noses, and go back to speaking heavily-accented English. Why? Because they're foreigners.

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