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Sound Like a Native English Speaker or Keep Your Accent?

Some considerations to help you decide

If you speak English with a foreign accent, it means that you are pronouncing words and sentences differently from how most people pronounce them in a particular country or region (Derwing & Munro, 1997).
 

In my experience as a teacher of English, most adult students aspire to sound like native speakers of the language.

And I can relate to that.

I’m an Italian who had to learn English as a second language and the last thing I wanted was to speak English with an Italian accent.

I had 5 reasons for this.

But, after nearly a decade of teaching English professionally, I’ve come to realize that some of these reasons were not valid.

In this article, I’ll share all 5 of them with you, and explain why some of them are beneficial while others are not. I’ll also share what research into second language acquisition says about accent, identity, and pronunciation.

I hope this will help you decide whether you should aim to sound like a native English speaker or keep your beautiful and unique accent.

Reason #1: I didn’t want people to make fun of me

In Italy — my native country — we tend to make fun of Italians who speak English with an Italian accent. Politicians are our number 1 target.
 

I, too, used to laugh at my fellow nationals and didn’t want to sound like them. Most of all, I didn’t want to be made fun of because of how Italian my English sounded. I thought that having an Italian accent would make me sound less intelligent.

This wasn’t some inferiority complex I had. It’s a common feeling that many language learners experience and research provides evidence of this.

A study from 2010 in a journal called “Personality and Social Psychology” found that people often form opinions about someone based on their voice more than their appearance.

Kimberly LeVelle and John Levis, two linguists and researchers from the USA, say that there seems to be a stigma attached to having a foreign accent, and students who have accents may experience feelings of shame (LeVelle & Levis, 2014).

Another Canadian linguist and researcher, Tracey Derwin, interviewed 100 intermediate-level adult students of English who had immigrated to Canada. She asked them whether they would like to pronounce English like a native speaker. 95% of them agreed that they would. The learners were also asked if they would feel more respected if they pronounced English well. The majority of them agreed (Derwing, 2003).

Clearly, there is a relationship between having an accent and feeling respected by others.

But is this a good reason for wanting to sound like a native?

I don’t think it is.

Your accent is who you are. It’s like a mirror that reflects your cultural identity. Your native accent is the unique music that your ancestors composed over years and years of cultural evolution. Every time you speak English, the sounds of that music will be there.

That melody is you.

So if you’re not ashamed of yourself or your culture, don’t be afraid of that music either.

I know it’s easier said than done, but if I were you, I wouldn’t waste my time worrying about what others think of my pronunciation. This won’t help you learn. Instead, aim at speaking in a way that others find easy to understand, so you can communicate your ideas well — which is the most important thing.

Speaking with a native accent, however, can be a way to connect with native speakers. This was my second reason for wanting to sound like them.

Reason #2: I wanted to connect with native speakers

I lived in English-speaking countries — England, Australia, and New Zealand — for 6 years.

When I was in London, I wanted to sound British. In Australia, I wanted an Australian accent. When I lived in New Zealand, I wanted to speak like a New Zealander.

Not sounding like a native felt weird to me so I tried to imitate the accent of native speakers. Sounding like them made me feel more connected to them. It helped me integrate with the local communities.

Is this a good reason for wanting to sound like a native?

I think it is.

Indeed, “accent is connected to personal identity and can represent identification with or memberships in a particular group” (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 2010:275).

So, if you want to feel more connected with the local community, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to develop a new identity by modifying your accent.

I’ve done this many times and I don’t regret it.

Reason #3: I wanted to become an English teacher

My biggest ambition as a learner was to become a teacher of English, so I thought that having a native English accent wasn’t optional — I had to have one.

I was not the only one to think this.

Research has shown that native-speaker pronunciation models are considered vital by English language teachers from various regions worldwide, and learners of English show an even greater preference for them than their teachers do (Murphy, 2014).

In my experience, I find this to be a common belief indeed.

Is this a good reason for wanting to sound like a native?

No.

Despite what English teachers and learners think, having a native accent doesn’t automatically make the teacher skilled in teaching English, and “one cannot confidently assume the superiority of any type of teachers over the other” (Alghazo & Zidan, 2019:243).

I can confirm this from experience.

I have many non-native English teacher colleagues who have their own accents. They’re highly qualified, have years of experience, and do their job amazingly well.

You don’t have to sound like a native even if you want to teach English.

Sadly, however, too many language schools around the world still don’t hire non-native English teachers. The obsession with native speakers is still widely spread.

Reason #4: I wanted perfect English pronunciation

 

To me, learning English involved learning grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. So I wanted perfect grammar, perfect vocabulary, and perfect pronunciation.

Is this a good reason for wanting to sound like a native?

It depends.

To answer this question we first need to define what “perfect pronunciation” means.

As a learner, I associated “perfect pronunciation” with “native speaker’s pronunciation”. But this definition doesn’t take into consideration how English is spoken around the world.

Let me explain.

According to Ethnologue, the most trusted reference work that catalogs all of the world’s known living languages, there are 1,456 million speakers of English around the world.

379 million of these are native speakers.

1,076 million are non-native speakers.

You might think of English as the official language of the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and a few other countries.

Yes.

But English is also a lingua franca. It’s the language that people who speak different native languages use to communicate and understand each other.

If you need to use English as a lingua franca (i.e. to communicate with non-native speakers of English), it’s better NOT to speak like a native.

Why?

Jennifer Jenkins, a professor of global Englishes at the UK’s University of Southampton, says that in a lingua franca situation, native speakers struggle to understand and make themselves understood because their pronunciation is not the most understandable (Jenkins, 2000).

I have a couple of personal stories to support this claim.

Photo by Brett Zeck on Unsplash

Story 1: In 2011 I was speaking with a native speaker from Manchester, England. I said to him, “You’re so lucky because English is your first language. You can travel the world, go to any place and people will always understand you.” He replied, “You’re actually luckier than me because most people don’t understand my accent.”

Story 2: One of my Italian friends once said to me, “When I’m in a work meeting with Germans, French, and other non-native English speakers, we can understand each other — no problem. But when Mark from the UK joins the conversation, no one can understand what he says.”

Keep this in mind when deciding what “perfect pronunciation” means.

Keep this in mind when deciding whether or not it’s worth having a native English accent.

Today my definition of “perfect pronunciation” is “understandable pronunciation” — which means, in other words, that if people can understand you without squinting, you’re doing fine.

So, was “wanting to have perfect pronunciation” a good reason?

It depends on who you use English with. If you mostly need to speak English with other non-native speakers, I don’t think you should bother with having a native English accent.

Trying to have a native English accent might even be counterproductive in certain contexts.

Reason #5: I loved native English accents

I loved — and still do — the sounds of native English accents. I especially love the “harmony” of the Kiwi and Australian accents. I could listen to them all day.

Is this a good reason for wanting to sound like a native?

Hell yeah! 100%!

Who’s going to get hurt if you like how native speakers sound and you want to speak like them? No one.

So go ahead. Invest time and energy and do your best to speak like a native. Don’t worry about what your teachers say. Don’t let others define your pronunciation goals.

Do what makes you happy.

Final thought

An American once told me I have a British accent. An Australian colleague says I have a New Zealand accent. A teacher trainer from New Zealand says I have an Australian accent.

Some of my Italian students love how I speak English because they say I don’t have an Italian accent while others say they can hear clearly that I’m Italian.

To be honest, I don’t care anymore about how I sound.

But I’m not you, and you might want to speak with a native English accent.

Or maybe not.

Both choices are OK.

Just make sure you have good reasons for what accent you want to have.

***

References

  • Alghazo, S., & Zidan, M. (2019). Native-speakerism and professional teacher identity in L2 pronunciation learning. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics9(1), 241–251.
  • Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M., & Goodwin, J.M. (2010). Teaching pronunciation: A course book and reference guide (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • Derwing, T. (2003). What Do ESL Students Say About Their Accents? Canadian Modern Language Review, 59(4), 547–567. doi:10.3138/cmlr.59.4.547
  • Derwing, T., & Munro, M. (1997). Accent, intelligibility, and comprehensibility: Evidence from four L1s. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 20, 1–16.
  • Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language: New models, New norms, New goals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • LeVelle, K., & Levis, J. (2014). Understanding the impact of social factors on L2 pronunciation: Insights from learners. In J. Levis & A. Moyer (Eds.), Social dynamics in second language accent (pp. 97–118). Boston, MA: DeGruyter. 
  • McCrocklin, S., & Link, S. (2016). Accent, Identity, and a Fear of Loss? ESL Students’ Perspectives. Canadian Modern Language Review, 72(1), 122–148. doi:10.3138/cmlr.2582
  • Munro, M. J., & Derwing, T. M. (1995). Foreign Accent, Comprehensibility, and Intelligibility in the Speech of Second Language Learners. Language Learning, 45(1), 73–97. doi:10.1111/j.1467–1770.1995.tb00963.x
  • Murphy, J. M. (2014). Intelligible, comprehensible, non-native models in ESL/EFL pronunciation teaching. System, 42, 258–269. doi:10.1016/j.system.2013.12.007

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