In order to become really fluent in a foreign language, it’s more than just a matter of learning vocabulary and grammar and stringing them together flawlessly. Some of the hardest aspects to master in order to sound truly native-like are intonation and accent. Usually there comes a point when, either through lack of effort or through linguistic inability, non-native speakers stop improving (look at Arnold Schwarzenegger). Linguists call this phenomenon fossilization. (The term fossilization is usually applied to grammar, but I think it can be used for the fine points of pronunciation as well.) It’s understandable that learners would eventually halt their progress in this area; there comes a point when the benefits of added native-like fluency just aren’t worth the effort the would require.
I think these questions of accent and intonation enter the mind of any person bent on mastery of a language. Exactly how good do I need to sound? Do I care if I’m always easily identifiable as an American (or just a foreigner) to native speakers? Does my accent affect listeners’ comprehension? Does my accent in their language sound bad to them, or is it charming? If I can reduce my accent with coaching, should I? How much money is that worth to me? And if I did go through coaching, how would I know when to be satisfied?
Although all these questions have occurred to me, I haven’t really answered them all. I work full-time now, and since I use Chinese on the job I’m kind of depending on that improving my fluency, including accent and intonation. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’d like to reduce my accent in Chinese as much as possible, but I’m also kind of lazy, and I’m not yet ready to address the question of how much it’s all worth to me.
Students of Chinese have one big advantage when it comes to accent. Because Chinese speakers’ Mandarin is affected by an underlying extremely diverse linguistic hodgepodge of languages and dialects, the accents of the Chinese themselves vary widely. This works to a foreigner’s advantage because if he can get down the tones and the sounds of Mandarin, his accent can sometimes be mistaken for one of the native Chinese groups’ accents. For a student of Mandarin in Mainland China, the accent progression from jabbering fool to fluent goes something like this:
- Foreigner accent (not good)
- Xinjiang accent (better than the “foreigner accent” only because it’s “Chinese”)
- Hong Kong accent (getting better)
- Taiwanese accent (good Chinese, but funny)
- Southern China accent (fluent and authentic, but not ideal)
- Beijing accent (the Chinese standard)
I’ve had occasion to consider these matters of accent and intonation because it’s been a key issue recently at work as we continue to record the voices for the cartoon series we’re producing. The voice as Asta the pig has been praised by test audiences, cementing my role.
I know that foreigners who have worked for my company in the past have not been allowed to do the cartoon character voices because their Chinese wasn’t good enough; they sounded “like a foreigner.” I’m not vain enough to think that my recordings are indistinguishable from native speakers’, but I really wonder how much slack they’re cutting me. During recordings I have been getting some accent coaching; if my reading sounds strange to them I have to redo it as many times as is necessary to satisfy them. That may sound really aggravating (and it can be), but at the same time, this is free accent coaching I’m getting on the job! So I can’t complain.
There’s definitely a pattern. Whenever lines become very long and grammatically complicated, or involve a phrase or grammatical structure I’m not familiar with, I almost always need several takes. Short lines with easy content I can just breeze through, sometimes getting laughs from my audience with my impassioned pig voice.
Damn, my job is pretty cool. (Doesn’t anybody out there want it too??)