People ask me all the time about which accent is the best one to learn. They’re worried that picking the wrong accent will make them sound stupid or uneducated. They’re worried that people will judge them for speaking in a weird way, or that they’ll build a habit that can’t be reversed as they learn more about the language.
But this is actually the wrong question.
Before you can settle on the best accent to learn, you need to take a step back and ask yourself what is your true end goal is for learning this language.
Once you answer that question, you can really only come to one conclusion, and that’s that you need to mimic the accent of the person you are talking to right then and there.
When I was a kid, I was a nerd in all the honors classes. I’d go to class and try to use the big words I’d read in books. I always spoke in a very structured, ‘correct’ way.
But when I wasn’t in class, I’d either be on the basketball court talking trash to people, or freestyling with my friends.
If you listened to my English in the classroom setting compared to my English when I was with my friends, it was very different.
Most people would say that my ‘school’ English was good and my ‘street’ English was bad. I’d argue that each accent can be both. It depends on the context.
Language is a means to an end, and your ‘end’ will change depending on the context.
For example, when I spoke ‘street’ English, it suited the end goals I had in the street context, like impressing my friends and telling jokes. My ‘school’ English had an academic context. The end goal there was to impress my teachers and get good grades.
If I went into my English class saying “Yo, I’m about to wreck this Shakespeare test, son,” then I’d get an F.
If I came onto the basketball court saying, “I do believe this ball shall meet its mark without obstruction”… I’d probably get punched.
In both scenarios, the mismatch to the context would be bad, not the accent itself.
So here’s the real question when it comes to choosing an accent: what is your target context?
You can quickly determine what accent you need to learn once you know the context you want to be speaking in.
How To Really Define Your End Goal
In reality, you’re not trying to learn a language. You’re trying to learn a people.
When people ask about choosing an accent, they’re usually thinking about the rules of the language. They want to understand the rules so they can stay inside them.
But if you think that way, it’s going to slow you down. No one speaks the Queen’s English or National Academy Spanish in everyday life.
Your goal is not to pass an exam. Your goal is to be able to speak with people. You want to make friends, or maybe find a girlfriend or boyfriend.
Connecting with people creates an emotional aspect to learning the language, and you need to have that emotional element. It helps you to maintain motivation through the hard work of learning the language.
You need to work out which people you want to connect with, and why you want to connect with them. What do you imagine yourself doing with those people?
Being able to answer all these questions will allow you to develop a better idea of your target context and what your real end goals are.
Once you’ve got those answers, then you can ask yourself which accent you’re going to learn. You’ll want to learn the accent that will be most useful to you in the context in which you see yourself using the language with your chosen people.
Practical Tips On Learning Your Target Accent
Finding a cultural connection to the language makes it much easier to start practicing your target accent. It might be music, art, or sports — whatever your hobbies already are, see how they’re done in the other culture.
You’ve got to find some sort of cultural bridge that will help you connect with the language and the best accent for you to start with.
For example, if Chinese martial arts are very appealing to you, you can take that angle to start learning Mandarin in a particular city. If you think Italian sounds nice and you like cooking, you can take that angle to go into Italian classes, and learn the accent used in the class. If you like chess, who is the top Spanish-speaking chess champion? Can you emulate their accent?
Establish some sort of cultural connection because that is the basis for emotional connection. An emotional connection is absolutely necessary to keep you motivated to keep learning the language.
Once you’ve found that cultural and emotional connection, consume your chosen aspect of the culture as much as possible. Use it as your entry point to the language. Watch videos on it, listen to people talk about it so that you have that ‘non-linguistic’ interest keeping you motivated to maintain your learning.
Then you need to learn the universal principles of sound. You want to learn to mimic these pieces of media you’ve been consuming. Mimicry helps you to understand and internalize the sounds you need to speak in your target accent.
What If My Target Accent Isn’t “Correct”?
“Correctness” is generally learned with the “learn by eye” approach.
(This is the arbitrary standard created by teaching institutions. You’ll find it in textbooks and traditional teaching materials.)
“Learn by eye” holds you to a set of rules about what is technically correct on paper, but being technically correct doesn’t actually help you to speak more effectively.
You need to shake this idea of “correctness”. What’s right for you is entirely dependent on your end goals and the context you’re in.
Everything is relative: what’s wrong to everyone else might be completely right to your target people.
What If There Are No Beginner Materials In My Target Accent?
Just getting started and can’t find anything in your target accent? Work up to simple communication by using ‘standard’ materials. This will help you grasp the basic words and structure.
To get to deeper levels of conversation, though, to where you’re able to have spontaneous conversation, you just have to clock a lot of “mat time”. This is time spent speaking with people and practicing having real conversations.
The most important aspect of all this practice time is that your accent and sounds are aligned with the people you’re speaking to. That’s why it’s so important to have a clear picture of your target people. That way you can seek them out and focus on mimicking them so you learn by ear.
Isn’t It Better To Learn ‘Standard’ So Everyone Can Understand Me?
Learning a generic version of the language or accent takes away from the emotional connection you have with the language and the people. It takes away from the depth of your experience and your expressions.
You’re better off going deep on learning how to adapt your accent so that you can easily move between groups of people as you get a better understanding of the language.
The first accent you learn isn’t a lifetime choice. You’re not committed to that niche accent forever. Learn the niche that’s most relevant to you right now, and then when you switch context, you can go back to those universal principles of sound and mimicry to adapt to the new people you’re speaking with.
A while back, I was in Salvador, Brazil, and I met a guy that I could have sworn was born and bred in the US. It turned out he was Brazilian.
He was a rapper, and got really into American hip-hop. He watched all the movies, studied how the language was used, and as a result spoke ‘black’ English perfectly.
Because we spoke exactly the same ‘type’ of English, he was able to connect with me much more easily than any other English learner would have. He got me in way that would have been impossible if he had learned standard English.
It was the perfect demonstration that the purpose of learning a language is to connect with your people.
People connect through sound, so you should always strive to sound more like the people you’re talking to. Remember — mimic the accent of the person you’re talking to right then and there. This is why learning adaptation is so important.
For example, I’m writing this post in Portugal, but I learned to speak Portuguese in Brazil. A lot of people in my position would be snobby about changing their accent. They would complain about the different sounds in the new context. Instead, it’s a question of updating the end goal. I’m here to make Portuguese friends, therefore, I’m going to adapt to the new accent so I can connect with people more easily.
You might feel intimidated by this idea of adapting your accent.
It’s easy for me to say, right? I’m the language guy, but you might just be trying to get your first language down.
If you focus on learning by ear though, taking the Mimic Method Approach, you’ll learn your first accent and the universal principles of mimicry. I assure you that you will then be able to adapt to different accents in the way I can.
It only seems hard if you don’t know the universal principles. That’s why you should enter your details below and get our free course. It will teach you everything you need to know to get started on your first accent: