A few days ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the accomplished Japanese learner and YouTube star Matt Vs Japan for the I’m Learning Mandarin podcast. Our recorded conversation lasted over an hour and is available in full here. When it was over we spent a further several hours chatting about all things language learning.
Matt is one of the most insightful, interesting and persuasive speakers I’ve ever interviewed, both in my previous career as a journalist and in my current incarnation as a language podcast host. His story of how he used immersive methods to acquire Japanese to a near native level within a few years is compelling and he is a hero to many who aspire to emulate his success.
He is also unusually forthright. Recently, a provocative tweet he posted about the importance of having a good accent in your target language caused an online storm. Matt compares having a good accent to being physically attractive and argues that both are undeniably hugely important factors in how we are immediately judged by others.
He doubled down on his views during the interview stating that “there are certain obvious facts that we can’t say anymore and one of the most obvious facts is that if your accent sucks you’re not fun to listen to.” I have since reflected on our conversation and in this blog want to flesh out my thoughts on Matt’s comments and on the issue of foreign accents in general.
First, let me state where I agree with Matt. I think his analogy, though deliberately provocative, is in many respects valid and worth making. However much we might protest that accent doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t factor into how others judge us or how we judge others, this is obviously false.
If you doubt it ask yourself this: who are your favourite polyglots and language content creators? Whether it’s Luca Lampariello, Steve Kaufmann, Richard Simcott or Olly Richards all of the most celebrated language learners have one thing in common: they all speak their stronger languages with unusually polished accents. Would Matt himself be anywhere near as revered if he spoke Japanese with a discernible American twang?
It’s worth admitting to ourselves that on this superficial level accent matters – both to us and to everyone else – because being in denial of the truth is never good. I can’t deny the slight pang of jealousy I feel each time I come across a Mandarin learner who speaks truly flawless, native level Mandarin with a Beijing twang. But once we’ve accepted this truth a more important question is: What should we do about it? Here I’m less sure Matt has the answers, although I remain open minded.
In an attempt to solve this problem Matt is preoccupied with searching for the most efficient method for adults to acquire a very good accent (one which is not only clear and comprehensible but also pleasant to listen to) in a foreign language. One of the most remarkable things to come out of our interview is the fact that in this respect he doesn’t regard himself as a model which others should try to emulate. On the contrary he describes himself as “a cautionary tale” to be avoided at all costs.
Instead, for inspiration Matt looks to his friend and business partner Ken who acquired an extraordinary native like Japanese accent after watching Anime cartoons for several hours a day at the age of 16. Matt has come to believe that an over-reliance on reading causes the brain to become biased in its processing of foreign sounds. It follows that focusing exclusively on sound input like Ken did might be the best way to avoid accent problems which Matt – who relied heavily on reading – has spent years trying to correct.
This is an interesting (if unproven) hypothesis. I agree that prioritising listening at the start is a good idea but I’m not sure relying exclusively on audio through the intermediate stages is practical for Mandarin. Both Matt and I have yet to come across any foreigners acquiring Mandarin to near native fluency in adulthood without relying to some degree on reading – whether pinyin or characters. Matt admitted the large number of Mandarin homophones would make it difficult to acquire the language exclusively through listening but suggested the solution lies in training our ears to become as sensitive as those of an infant.
I told Matt about my British friend who attempted to do just that and as a result actually did achieve a near native Beijing accent (though he also relied on reading pinyin and characters too). For the first year my friend spent several hours a day in his bedroom repeating all the phonetic components of Mandarin – including tones – one after the other, along to a CD recording. Matt responded that this sounded ideal. But how many learners would be willing to spend their days like this? Is this really much more appealing than Matt’s own efforts to perfect his pitch accent over the last few years?
These questions aren’t merely rhetorical and are well worth exploring but I remain sceptical that any method could enable most ordinary adult learners to speak east Asian languages without a foreign twang. As I’ve written elsewhere, having good pronunciation in Mandarin is extremely important. But regardless of the techniques deployed – or the order in which they’re deployed – achieving anything close to the kind of standard Matt holds himself to probably does require some natural ability and, more importantly, an unusually obsessive psychological profile which the vast majority of people plainly lack.
Instead, in search of a solution to the alleged problem of foreign accents I prefer to return to Matt’s original analogy with physical beauty.
Matt reminds us that we live in a world in which we judge others and are judged by others for our physical beauty, or lack thereof. Since almost everybody has personal experience of coming to terms with the fact that we will never live up to the ideal of beauty which models and movie-stars are revered for possessing, perhaps we can draw lessons from this.
Sure, there are always measures we can take to get closer to that ideal. We can, for example, make major dietary sacrifices, spend hours a day doing specific exercises and radically restructure our lives around the goal of achieving the ‘perfect’ body. And just as with pursuing a flawless accent, society will judge us more kindly for it. But most people just don’t care enough about what strangers think about them to put in the work.
I suspect the preferred and healthier solution in all but a few cases will always be to do our best to speak clearly, let go of our craving to be perfect in the eyes of others and get on with the task of enjoying a life enriched by the joys of language learning.
*For my full roadmap on how to acquire Mandarin tones see this blog.