Why you don’t need a perfect native Spanish accent

Rob Ashby

Rob Ashby

The Spanish Obsessive

What 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.