It’s funny, people are always looking for language learning tips. I kind of see myself as the anti-tipper; other people can tell you the tips, they’re probably better at it. Me, I have always focused on things you should quit doing, the things that are holding you back.
But alas, people want tips.
So here’s one: pick at target language friend and copy how they talk. Copy, mimic, parrot; whatever. Talk just like them. Call them your “Accent Idols”
The inspiration from this tip came from a post that Skritter Jake wrote over at his blog. Come to think of it, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about this before. I remember dishing this advice out to people in the mid 90s.
It was one of the linguistics classes in the Romance Languages department when I was in grad school at the University of Michigan. Another student asked me about learning pronunciation, and I said, “I pick someone I want to sound like and copy them.”
When I was studying in Avignon, France, I picked my host brother, Christophe, to be my Accent Idol, and I picked up his southern “Midi” accent when speaking French. I think that accent has mostly disappeared now, but it comes out of me occasionally. I have no desire whatsoever to sound Parisian or northern.
When I was studying in Rome, I chose my host brother Stefano as my Accent Idol. From him and everyone around me, I picked up a pretty strong Roman accent, and I’ve been told I still have it… although I don’t hear it myself anymore. To be fair, nearly everyone in my program picked up a Roman accent, there was no reason not to. But I also tried to pick up Stefano’s expressions and speech habits.
So I was telling this to my graduate level class in Michigan, and someone asked me, “who is your role model in Spanish?”
My prof chimed in immediately. “Armando. You’re copying Armando.”
She was correct. Although nearly everyone around me spoke Spanish with either a Caribbean or an Andalusian accent, so it’s not a surprise that I came out of that experience aspirating and dropping every syllable-final /s/. But she was right, Armando was my Accent Idol.
Now I know all my English speaking friends are thinking about how problematic this is, and how that they would be super offended if they were the target of being speech copying. Here’s what I have to say about that:
1) People don’t notice when you’re copying them. They might notice that you’re trying to pick up their expressions, but they absolutely do not hear your attempts to copy their pronunciation. Why not? Because you are a 2nd language learner, and in their mind, you will never sound like them, ever. It’s not like you’re going to be that good at it.
2) When you copy someone, they hear improvement in your speech and they like it. They notice you picking up their slang, and they think it’s cool: they think you’re smart, and they think they’re a good influence on you; they are flattered. I didn’t keep it a secret from Armando that he was my role model; in fact, he was happy to help me sound more Cuban sometimes… he tried to teach me how to say “¿Este restaurante está abierto las veinticuatro horas?” and that was kind of a riot. He even told me how amazed I was how quickly I learned to aspirate the /s/.
3) Copying pronunciation, speech patterns, and expressions is what you’re doing anyway. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning from a teacher or a tape, you’re modeling your speech after another human… Why not make that model someone you like, someone you’ve chosen… someone you admire? No, language acquisition is not a function of mimicry, but yes, absolutely we do pick up sounds and expressions first from our parents and caregivers, then from our peers and role models.
I’ve always picked close friends to model my speech after. Besides the guys listed above, I’ve also tried to learn Leo (Mexican Spanish), Xiao Xin (Shandong Mandarin), and Davidico (Shanghainese Mandarin).
You’ll notice that I always pick close friends, native speakers, and all dudes. I’ve heard of guys who spend most of their time with women, and end up with feminine speech patterns and expressions; I”m sure you can find evidence of host mothers and lady friends in my speech.
As for Filipino, which I don’t speak but can mimic wickedly, I wish I could tell you I sound like my dad, because I’ve always admired his speaking. My dad is very well-spoken and resonant in Filipino languages. Unfortunately, my dad is a very difficult person to learn from; he clowns on mistakes, and says hilarious things about language learning, like “Listen to popular music, that’s how you learn,” and “You should think about what you’re saying before you say it,” absolutely zero learner empathy. And seriously, I’m not exactly a rookie language learner.
So for better or for worse, I hear myself sounding like my mama sometimes. Fine with me! When I was studying Tagalog, I had a talk with her… if I don’t understand something, offer me options, help me negotiate my way, don’t switch to English. Explain in the conversation, rather than break the conversation to explain. Don’t admonish someone for mistakes; help them say it right. So now my mama is a pretty good language partner! Takes after me, of course…
I rarely speak Tagalog for the purposes of communication; when I speak Tagalog nowadays, it’s usually for comedy effect. I have two uncles with very sharp provincial accents, and one auntie who uses words so hard they leave a mark. They are my role models for my comedy Tagalog. I think that makes my gentle city Filipino friends a little uncomfortable.
Anyway, I gained a reputation at the office in Shanghai for doing impressions of people. I couldn’t usually do the people I was closest to, but most of the time I could lock on to one or two outrageous habits and exaggerate it for comedy effect. My impressions of Amber and Esti, for example, sounded nothing like them, but I was able to do an impression of how I wanted them to sound, which was usually good enough.
I was constantly in copy mode in that office, and people knew it. One time Lili admonished Leo for using some course language in front of me, saying that I was going to pick it up and repeat it. Well OF COURSE I was going to pick it up and repeat it! You’ve heard Leo, he sounds awesome!
I didn’t limit myself to learning second language accents; I also tried to pick up different English accents from around the world. I can’t help it, I develop crushes on people’s accents. Of course, people can hear when I don’t sound like my super American self, and I’m trying to do their English. Aussie L was my Australian Accent Idol for the summer; he was a good sport about it. I think Kiwi J was less enthusiastic about being my Accent Idol, but I think he understood that I learn accents out of admiration.
So how do I go about learning from my Accent Idols?
- Start with phrases that are fun. Wait for your Accent Idol to say something really cool, and then repeat it so you sound like them. And then when you’re in a similar situation, let that phrase rip! ¿Sale? (I copied that from Leo)
- Listen a lot. If you’re learning by exposure, rather than study, you might go a long time before understanding what’s going on. Eventually, though, you’ll realize that you totally understand… even though you might not be able to express it in English. I remember telling someone “no hay pedo” and then turning back around and wondering how to say that in English. Eventually I settled on “It’s not a big deal.” The interesting thing is that I heard people saying “no hay pedo” for almost a year without understanding, before surprising myself by hearing myself say it… and properly at that. That comes from listening a lot… in this case almost a year.
- Make that sound. Sometimes you’ll hear native speakers making a sound you never learned in school. Make that sound. Do it. Even if you don’t understand it completely, make that sound. The French make a squirting sound with their lips, so I learned how to make it. Later I realize that the squirt actually means “nothing, zero.” So when someone asks what’s on tv, you can respond with a squirt noise, to mean that there is nothing on TV. I didn’t understand that sound when my host brother first did it, but I made that sound, and he explained it to me.
- Trust your Accent Idol. When your idol does or says something that strikes you as odd, assume that they are being culturally appropriate. I noticed that when Davidico was explaining something to another sound engineer, he as asking a lot of rhetorical questions. Why is this? This is because this is how Chinese people explain things. Does it sound normal to Americans? No, it doesn’t. But when I use this rhetorical structure in Chinese, it makes me sound more Chinese. Doesn’t it? Of course it does.
At this point in my Spanish journey, everyone I talk to is my Accent Idol; I think it’s because my listening comprehension is more advanced now. So every time I speak Spanish, I learn something new. Every time!
The other day I noticed that if you did something by accident, it was sin querer; if something was unopened, it was sin abrir. Finally something clicked in my head, after years of speaking Spanish. I can’t exactly explain it yet, but I do now know something new about the word sin with an infinitive; I know it linguistically, but not consciously. If I figure out how to explain it, I’ll let you know.
So, I have plenty more to say about copying how your friends talk, but I can see it’s getting late, and the word count is getting up there: 1696. In the end, copying your Accent Idol is an act of listening comprehension and speaking performance. And if it’s a close friend, that sounds good, you’ll have an endless source of fulfilling conversation.
Ask me later about how I used to mimic the sounds of aircraft when I was pre-linguistic…