The Important Difference Between Accent and Pronunciation

by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA, LLM, ME, EMT
Founder & Executive Director, Break Diving, Inc.

If you are learning (or trying to master) a foreign language, you need to know something: there’s a huge difference between a charming accent and bad pronunciation.

As a TEFL certified English teacher who spent a year in China teaching, and a perpetual student of foreign languages myself (Chinese, French, Italian, etc), I always correct someone’s English pronunciation.  Why?  Because I would hope someone else would do the same for me.

But sometimes, foreigners get mad at me.  They get offended.  “How DARE you criticize my accent!  You’re a jerk!”  Actually, no, they are completely uneducated: I’m not correcting your ‘horrible accent’–I’m correcting your horrible pronunciation.

Many of my English students in Shanghai would ask me, “How can I lose my Chinese accent?”  My response: “Why would you want to?  The more important question is: how can you learn perfect pronunciation, so that you are perfectly understood?”

You see, a foreign accent with perfect pronunciation is delightful and charming!  A foreign accent with terrible pronunciation?  That is not fun to listen to.  Worse: it’s often impossible to understand what these people are saying.

I’m a white guy.  I will never be mistaken for a Chinese person haha.  Even if I have a perfect Chinese accent, it doesn’t matter.  But what does matter is my pronunciation.  If I can speak Chinese with adequate pronunciation, that is my goal.

With French?  Well, in this case, with a perfect French accent, people absolutely will think I am French.  But what is the point?  I am not French.  I’m a proud American, and always will be.  And why do I want to totally lose my accent?  Is that really worth the trouble?  But here’s the really important thing: people think that a strong American accent sounds horrible in French, but it’s not the strong American accent that sounds horrible–it’s the strong BAD pronunciation!  Years ago, my mission with French was not to sound French, but rather, to not sound American.  And I’ve succeeded.  When I speak French, people know I’m not French, but they also don’t think I’m an American.  Sometimes they think I’m Canadian; sometimes Swiss; but never American.  Or even if they can tell I’m American, it’s a charming American accent I have.  A slight one.  Not the terrible ZHEEE SUIZZZZZZ  AMERICANNNNN that you hear in the movies.  And that’s because my pronunciation is good.  It has nothing to with me trying to mimic a French accent.

Bottom line: stop trying to sound ‘authentic’ and instead focus on sounding ‘intelligible’.  In other words: focus on people easily and clearly understanding what you are saying.

Speaking fast with terrible pronunciation?  You sound like an idiot.

Speaking slowly with perfect pronunciation?  You sound intelligent.

My advice: strive for the latter.

P.S. – If I see you and hear your English pronunciation is terrible, I’m going to correct you!  And please do the same for me in Chinese, French, Italian, and all the other languages I’m studying!


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One Reply to “The Important Difference Between Accent and Pronunciation”

  1. Yes, I concur with you Monroe 🙂 as you know, i lived in America for seven years and i heard more than once (mostly from women): “please do not loose your lovely accent” to which i would always respond: “don’t worry, it’s not gonna happen :)”. my kids, being raised in America, tried their best to correct me every time i mispronounced a word! Even recently, i realized i’ve been mispronouncing the name of a famous writer for years (fortunately, i did not mentioned her very often) and i was wondering: “why on Earth nobody told me this before?!”.
    Telling someone he or she is mispronouncing something is not rude, it’s helpful 🙂

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