If You Can Say "Ladder," You Can Speak Spanish!
Yes, you CAN cure your accent!
"Yeah, I can't say that."
This is an exhaustingly common response I get from students in the early days of Spanish class, and it usually follows my request that students repeat some atrociously difficult word that I've previously uttered beforehand. You know the type. Something awful. Something horrid. Something like... pero.
"There's an r in it! I can't make that sound!" they plead with me, begging me to understand their plight. If only I would just let go. What do I know anyway? With a Latino last name, how could I possibly hope to understand them? I must have come from somewhere so far away! I must have had Spanish-speaking parents! There is no other logical explanation for this utterly unholy level of pronunciation that I hold myself to!
"It's easy for you. You're Spanish," they complain.
"First of all, I'm not from Spain."
"Okay, Mexico. Puerto Rico? Peru? Where are you from?"
"Same place as you," I say with a smile. "I married a Mexican," I continue, explaining the last name.
"Okay, well I still can't say that."
I love this part, I think to myself. "Can you say, 'ladder?'"
At this point, I imagine you're probably thinking the same thing as my poor students!
Did you do it, though? Did you say "ladder?" Yes? Good. See that "d" sound in the middle? It's a "d" sound, right?
Wrong. I'll prove it.
It's what linguists call a flap.
Look at the word "latter" (as in, "The former act was impressive, but the latter was quite boring."). What's the sound in the middle? You probably want to say that it's a "t" sound, but now you're suspicious because of "ladder" (as you well should be)!
Linguistics is a science, so let's look at the evidence. Here's what we know:
- "Ladder" has two "d's" in the middle.
- "Latter" has two "t's" in the middle.
- "Ladder" and "latter" are pronounced the same in American English.
- "D" is not "t."
What just happened? Send help!
Here's the exciting part. The sound you have been making your entire life, every time you pronounce what you think is a "d" or a "t" between vowels (aka intervocalic "t" or "d"), is also an intervocalic Spanish "r."
You already know how to make the sound. You simply have to retrain your brain regarding what that sound is.
The part of linguistics presently being dealt with here is called phonology, which predominantly focuses on the relationship between phonemes and allophones. At the risk of oversimplifying, a phoneme is a mental representation of what your brain thinks is happening (e.g. the "d" or the "t" mentioned in the examples above). An allophone is the actual, physical sound that is produced (e.g. the flap produced in the examples above).
There are a great many little tricks like this which, once mastered, can allow the learner to sound so much more fluent, native, and understandable to the listener.
For example, think about the way we pronounce the "th" in "the." It's very close to the way we should be pronouncing intervocalic "d" in Spanish. This is one of the easiest and fastest tricks to immediately sound more native; everything gets softer and more relaxed, just as it should.
Some people argue that having an accent in your second language doesn't matter. While I want to agree to a certain extent (i.e. during the learning process), in the long run it is immensely important. Studies have actually proven that having an accent adversely affects listeners judgments about speakers' grammatical accuracy and thereby their competence as well! It isn't right or fair, but it's reality.
There are plenty more tricks such as those mentioned above, but these are two good ones to start with. If you leave here with anything, leave with this: an accent in a second language is a misalignment of allophones to certain phonemes. Realign the correct allophones with their phonemes and boom! You're golden.