Why you don’t need a perfect native Spanish accent


7588450704_5fb5125816What does it take to get a perfect, native accent? Which of the myriad accents of Spanish would you choose, and why? Our accent when we talk any language makes a big difference in how we we are perceived by others, as well as how we perceive ourselves. Accents are tied in deeply with questions and assumptions of identity and background. Speaking Spanish with a perfect native accent is what many people aspire to, but why? And is it really necessary?

What does it take to get a perfect accent?

Most people assume it as a self evident truth that if you live in a country where they speak the language you’re learning and you surround yourself with it constantly, you’ll pick up the accent. But will you ever eradicate your foreign accent completely?

In a session on Reddit, ex “Governator” of California Arnie Schwarzenegger said that he was more comfortable speaking English than German. He’s lived in California for a long time, been surrounded by English speakers and has lived a large proportion of his life in English. It’s fair to say he’s fluent – he’s got the vocabulary, grammar, and fluency. But he still sounds like, well, like Arnie:

I was interested enough in this question to put it out to people over at Quora, and found through various anecdotes that yes, it is possible, but it requires years of immersion, dedication, and even then it still might not happen. One commenter raised a very interesting point though: Everyone has an accent of some sort. If you wanted a native accent, you would have to choose one. Would you prefer to sound Colombian or Argentinian? Northern Spain or Southern Spain?

Being totally fluent does not mean having a native accent

As we saw with Arnie’s speech, you do not need to sound like a native speaker in order to be totally fluent. Few English speakers would struggle to understand what he’s talking about, and his accent is part of what makes him Arnie. Imagine how weird it would be if he had a perfect Californian accent – he’d lose his “Arnie” identity. His accent is very connected to his identity, and a change in accent would mean a change in identity. How attached are you to your identity? Do you think that if you sounded completely native you would feel a change in your identity? Whether you have the perfect native accent or not, you can still be completely fluent and easily understandable.

Pronunciation Aims and the Intelligibility Principle

In Applied Linguistics there has been some discussion recently about what language learners should really aim for in their pronunciation training. The “intelligibility principle” argues that even heavily accented language can be highly comprehensible (you know how some people just never lose their foreign accent, but you can still understand them perfectly?), so learners should aim to be clearly understood rather than native sounding. Time wrote an interesting article about this approach. In another study looking at different ways of improving pronunciation, students that improved their pronunciation the most (i.e., sounded clearer to native speakers) were the ones who didn’t study any particular part of the accent in depth, but looked at (or listened to) the “global” way the language should sound, with rhythm, intonation, and general speaking habits being the key points. Again – the aim of students here was to sound more clear, rather than more native. The takeout from that study was that it’s often more beneficial to listen to the sound and “music” of the language, rather than obsessing about every vowel and consonant sound. That way, you can sound more natural. And it makes sense too – a large part of our perception of people’s accents is down to the rhythm and intonation of their speech, as well as the individual sounds.

Speaking Spanish clearly and speaking Spanish like a native

So what’s the difference? Are we supposed to choose between either sounding clear and comprehensible, or pursuing a supposedly unattainable native accent? Think about it, however, and there’s not really any difference. What it comes down to is what native speakers find comprehensible, which tends to be an accent which sounds like their own. Spanish speakers from Spain will find a Castilian Spanish accent easier to understand, while a Chilean will find a Chilean Spanish accent easier to understand. If you’re English, you’ll understand an English accent easily, but may even struggle with other types of native accent (really strong Scottish accents can be very difficult for many native English speakers, for example). So the aim is the same – improve the clarity of your accent by trying to imitate native speakers more closely, who in turn will find it easier to understand you.

Which Spanish Accent to choose?

As a learner, you have an advantage over native speakers in that you can choose your accent. Native speakers already have their accents and all of the cultural assumptions and stereotypes that go along with them. However, you’re starting from a clean slate, and can be whoever you want and speak with whatever accent you want! According to the intelligibility principle then, it’s highly important to be clearly understood by whoever you’re talking to – but that person will tend to understand people who have the same accent as themselves. So what’s the clearest, most intelligible accent? Surely that’s the one to aim for!

In English, we have accents called the “standard American”, and “standard English” accents. These are accents which sound English and American, but give no further indicator of your origin. I could speak (with my standard English accent) to people around UK and America, and people wouldn’t be able to say exactly where I’m from. It’s fully comprehensible to everyone, unlike particularly strong local accents which some may struggle to understand. In Spanish, I think the accent that sounds clearest to all native speakers is either a) standard Castilian Spanish, or b) Colombian Spanish. A lot of people have said that Colombian Spanish is the easiest to understand, as they don’t talk too fast (generally), enunciate syllables clearly and without swallowing word endings, and have a generally clear and crisp pronunciation. Central Colombian Spanish is a good example of that – have a listen to Liz when she speaks, and I’m sure you’ll agree!

Aim high and speak clearly

As you learn Spanish, aim for a native accent of some description. We need to model our accents somewhere, so the most intelligible accent is the one that is clearest to native speakers. However, make sure you enunciate clearly! Remember that sounding native is just as important as speaking clearly, and hopefully one day you’ll be able to do both.

15 comments. Leave new

There are many different dialects of Spanish throughout Latinoamerica and siiiiiii Colombian accent is characterized by an almost musical intonation and clear pronunciation! Anyway I think if you want to learn a new languaje you must be involve in the culture of the country that you prefer.

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¿Cuál acento? es una buena pregunta. Soy inglés, aunque España está más cerca de Inglaterra que Hispanoamérica, prefiero el acento suyo que el español de España. Creo que es porque mi primera profesara era cubana, y antes de asistir a la clase no sabía nada del idioma. A mis amigos de España no les gusta que yo hable con la s (servesa etc en vez de thervetha) y cuando hablo con ellos trato de pronunciar las palabras como ellos, para que me entendian. Cuando hablo con mis amigos de las islas Canarias, me siento más cómodo, no tengo que preocuparme por la z y la ci/ce. Creo que tengo más fluidez cuando pronuncio palabras con la s, pero creo que si mi primera profesora hubiera sido española, habría empezado a hablar como ella.

Me encantan los podcasts

8th July 2013 10:23 pm

Hola! Sí, es verdad que la gente con la que estas puede influir en tu acento. Yo (Rob) cambio mi acento dependiendo la persona con la que esté hablando. No lo hago a propósito, pero me sale de todas formas! Gracias por escribirnos, y nos alegra que te gusten los podcasts.

Estoy de acuerdo totalmente con este articulo, creo que nuestros acentos son una parte imprescindible de nosotros y que mostran nuestra cultura y nos hace una persona interesante.

8th August 2013 5:23 pm

Eso es! Por eso no hay que tener vergüenza de cualquier acento que tengas

Gracias por este post, me ha servido para dejar de obsesionarme por hablar como una nativa… En mi caso soy nativa española y me desespera ver que soy incapaz de reproducir el acento de Leeds, en donde vivo, como una más, pero me tranquiliza pensar que, al fin y al cabo, no es tan importante hablar como una nativa… 🙂

6th October 2013 11:10 am

A todos nos gustaría tener una pronunciación perfecta, pero no es siempre posible. Y tampoco importa tanto! Mas importante es comunicarse bien, y el acento seguirá!

Yo soy nacido en Puerto Rico ,yo nunca desarolle hablar en tono nativo ,hablo ingles con accento,sin tener acento nativo.Creo que no importa por que puedo imitar acentos facilmente ,pero es muy raro.

Ola Rob and Liz,
As a full time Spanish student I am very taken by
the beautiful music of the different regional dialects. I understand
what you are saying about clarity and communication being the most
important factors but I must strongly disagree that one cannot focus on a
regional accent if the previous factors are not being compromised. If
utility or time limitations were my only concerns I would agree but I am
learning Spanish just as much for the beauty of the language and I feel
that my preference for certain aspects of central and northern Andean
Spanish (I find the clarity of Colombian Spanish as part of it’s beauty)
the same as my preference for Jazz over Country and Western. As a
guitar player I even have my favorite artists and I buy the sheet music
of the incredible Joe Pass not because I want to be him or somehow cheat
myself of gaining my own sound though my own life experiences but
because his music touches me and I want to better understand why that
is. I believe that our preferences for certain music, food, language
and cultures are part of our life experiences and legitimate growth as
unique individuals. I know that as time goes on my preferences for
everything will evolve but sometimes it is the decisions that we make
early on in one of our endeavors of love that have the largest impact on
on our enjoyment of those loves for the rest of our lives. I decided
from the start that I would pick either Spain or a Latin American
country (or groups of countries) as the grammar and vocabulary
foundation of the books and audio courses I would purchase and stick
with that decision until I had some confidence and a solid footing in a
single approach before I started the inevitable next step of
incorporating Spanish from across the globe into my own personal style.
I believe that my choice to predominantly study the Spanish of native
speakers as opposed to ones that learned it as a second language speaks
to the fact that the “type” of Spanish you choose is important. I find
that Liz’s Spanish is particularly pleasing to my ears in the same way
that the beauty of Joe Pass’ music captivates me. Musicians practice
scales and chords particular to their style of music or instrument and
professional speakers such as news anchors and actors practice tongue
twisters to build up their linguistic abilities. They practice those
scales and tongue twisters not because they are going to play or say
those exact things live but because how and what we practice matters and
an informed decision to choose our influences is crucial to reaching
our full potential. I know that I should quit spouting my own views now
and get off my soap box and I’m sure that many (if not all) will think
that I am taking this aspect far to seriously. But my reason for this
post (believe it or not there is one buried in here somewhere if I can
just find it) is to ask you to please consider doing a couple of
podcasts somewhere on your site that focus on the central Andean
dialect. I would love more than anything to be able to have some
Spanish tongue twisters and drills that will let me isolate and hear
certain sounds repeated so that I can practice. I promise that I will
not try to do Liz imitations, which is impossible anyway since I know
that these drills may only affect my Spanish a little and not replace
it. But I feel very strongly that just as I am interested in Colombian
history even though I will never actually be from there, I am very
interested in the sound of Liz’s Spanish even though I will never
actually speak it. Can I use the fact that it is very close to
Christmas sway you? If so, then please notice that it is very close to

Thank you

Hi Kevin

I’m not against developing a native accent at all – of course! Everyone finds different accents attractive for various reasons, and it definitely helps to choose one on which to base our own pronunciation on. But, for most, a perfect native accent is unattainable, which is why we need to be very conscious of being clear and understandable.

I like your idea of developing a few drills around Liz’s Colombian accent – we’ve been working on a pronunciation course and there are plenty of drills in there, but we’ll look to include some in our podcasts as well! Won’t be this side of xmas though…

Thanks for stopping by!

I’m looking forward to the pronunciation course. The fact that you two will be approaching the subject from such different perspectives will be a real plus I think. I’m really impressed by the amount of effort and time that is evident in your other material. (You really MUST be obsessed!) Thanks very much for fully transcribing your episodes.

🙂 Thanks, it’ll be a little while yet, but hopefully early new year we’ll have it up and running!

Um, oops. I reread your article here and now I see that you are not completely against picking a regional dialect to some extent. So sorry for the rant. But I really love the flavors of Andean Spanish. It’s crisp yet fluid comprehensibility is part of the elegance……… to my ears. Rant aside I am very much hoping you do some lessons and drills highlighting that particular flavor of the language. It IS almost Christmas after all.

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