It happened again.
“Wait! You weren’t born here? How come you have no accent?”
“I actively worked to fix my accent”
“How? How did you fix your accent?”
I was so proud of myself. I had managed to fool native speakers into thinking I was also a native speaker. But there’s a deeper truth here. The real reason why I changed my accent goes back to when I was desperately trying to adapt to a new country.
When I first moved to the US, I was fresh out of high school and ready to start college. I had studied English as a second language, so I could write it correctly, and had some experience speaking it but I was still really worried that I wouldn’t be able to converse fluently. My first job was in retail, working in a department store selling electronics. I learned to converse quite fluently and my fears slowly dissipated.
But, a new problem came up. After talking to me, people were puzzled with my accent. They would try to guess what country I was from and boy were they wrong.
“Where is that accent from?”
“Your accent sounds German”
“Are you from Russia?”
“You sound Polish”
“Is your accent Croatian?”
...and on, and on.
At first I used to answer them, “I’m from Albania” but eventually the question just got annoying.
So I set about to change it.
The desire to fit-in to a new culture, coupled with the desire for a fresh start in a new country are very powerful motivators. In fact, my accent wasn’t the only thing I was trying to fix. I was going for total cultural assimilation: American sports, movies, TV shows, accent, way of speaking, verbal tics, body language, etc. I dove in head first. I even considered changing my name to a more anglicized version. (I’m glad I didn’t)
Some people embrace their native culture when immigrating abroad; they try desperately to hang on to every thread. Not me. I was determined to shed my past faster than a dog sheds its hair.
And so my journey began. I didn’t hire an accent coach, the solution seemed pretty obvious to me. Listen to how words are pronounced and try to pronounce them the same way in my head multiple times until it matches.
First start with a phrase or passage from a video on YouTube that features a native speaker of the language. Listen for a few seconds, pause the video and repeat what you just heard out loud (preferably out loud, but you can also do it in your head if you’re in a public space)
Next rewind the video, listen again and compare in your head how you sounded vs how the native speaker sounded. Repeat the passage again after listening to it adjusting the parts you didn’t get right. Continue doing this loop until you think you got it right, then move to another passage.
Now I happen to have a natural talent for detecting nuances in some accents, so I was able to do this by myself. If you have a hard time finding the differences you could hire an accent coach to act as your feedback loop. They’ll be able to tell you when you’ve got it right and even help with the actual positions of your lips, tongue, etc..
It took me a while, but eventually my plan worked. People stopped asking me about my accent and I felt very proud of myself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve understood how the teenager in me wanted desperately to fit in and distance himself from his past but the adult in me wishes I had held on to some cultural things a little more.
It’s all about the why
As I’ve reflected more on the question, I’ve realized that how I did it isn’t particularly interesting. Maybe there are more efficient methods to change one’s accent faster, but what matters more is the motive for wanting the change.
It’s important not only because it pushes you but because it changes you.
I wanted total cultural assimilation. I wanted to sound like a native speaker so I didn’t feel like a foreigner. I wanted to distance myself from my past. In the end I got my wish but at what cost?
I’ve since decided to change things. I’m not going as far as to change my accent again, but I’m working to bring back cultural elements from my past as well as integrate somewhat into the present. I try and speak Albanian whenever possible, with my parents and friends. I talk to them about current events in Albania and discuss it with them. I watched a documentary about the Albanian language and how it’s changing.
I recently met up with a friend from high school and challenged myself to speak 100% Albanian, even though he knows English very well. We reminisced about the past and had pretty deep conversations about culture and language. I’ve been happily surprised to discover that this part of me never left and I’m very happy to have him back.