Sounding foreign when you speak a language is something that will automatically set you apart. It may not carry negative consequences for you, but still you will sound “not us”. If this worries you, the first thing to do is identify the reasons why you are spotted as a foreigner, as a non-native speaker. Also it is good to realize – as we will see below – that there are degrees and sounding foreign does not always entail serious problems. Sometimes it is even desirable!
Other times, however, not being a local is the worst thing that could happen to you.
But how do they know I am a non-native speaker?
There are many reasons why you might sound foreign when you speak English or any other language. They all have in common one thing: these are areas in which both languages diverge. It is not a matter of how big the difference is, but how relevant. If a tiny difference is relevant for communication in one language and you fail to discriminate correctly, then you will easily be detected as a foreigner.
Next I will go over a number of aspects which are common reasons for Spanish speakers to sound foreign when speaking English:
- Vocabulary choices: One of the telling signs that you are talking to a spaniard is the choice of vocabulary. English has a lot of “duplicate terms” which are used as formal or informal alternatives, technical or layman vocabulary, and so on. Very often, most of the tecnical, formal terms are of latin or greek origin and they overlap with the meaning in Spanish to different degrees (from false friend to full coincidence). What do you think happens? Right. Spaniards tend to use the latin and greek terms which makes them sound bookish and unnatural in colloquial situations. You can’t blame them. Solution: pay close attention to how native speakers refer to things and adopt their vocabulary, as silly as it might sound sometimes. In case of doubt, if you have two synonyms and one sounds or is clearly latin or greek or you would use it in Spanish: choose the other one.
- The vowel system: just do the math: if you try to speak a language with twelve vowel sounds, while still pronouncing the five vowel sounds from Spanish, you are bound to get in trouble. Those twelve sounds are there because they are used. Any of those twelve sounds can be the difference between two words. Why do they have to use twelve when you can use five? Why do you have to use five when you could use twelve? Who cares? It does not matter. Solution: train your ear and your mouth to discriminate each of those sounds. This is key for both speaking and listening. If you do not make those distinctions, you might mix-up words, which is potentially embarrasing.
- Voiced consonants: At phonemic level (individual sounds), the other great challenge for Spanish speakers is the presence of minimal pairs of consonants (voiceless – voiced) where in Spanish only the voiceless exists. (note: a voiced sound is a sound that involves vibration of the vocal folds, for example /d/. A sound that does not involve vibration of the vocal folds is a voiceless sound. ) Again, these sounds often determine the difference between two words which are otherwise identical. Solution: the same as with the vowel system. You need to learn to identify them and pronounce them correctly.
- Connected speech: English is a language of fewer stops and frequent speed changes. Like in French, so-called liaison (the connection of two or more words when they are pronounced together) is frequent. Solution: groups of words that appear frequently in the same sequence will suffer this phenomenon.
- Speed changes: The rule is simple. If the listener is expected to predict the following word or words, then the speaker will accelerate. In contrast, if the listener is going to find it difficult to process the information, e.g. new data then speed is reduced and pronunciation is also more careful and emphatic. Solution: this is directly related to connected speech. If you have predictable strings of words, you can safely speed up without worrying that people will not follow you. However if you are going to say something unpredictable or you just want to make emphasis, then you will slow down to make sure you get your message across.
- Intonation patterns: We tend to think that intonation is a given, and also that we can change it for emphasis any way we want. The conventions of the language you are speaking say the opposite: questions and statements are told appart because of the intonation pattern. Solution: listen to the melody when people speak. How things rise and fall as they speak.
Even if you are a native speaker, you need to practice, practice, practice.
- Modal voice range: There are things we notice straight away and yet we still do not quite know what they are. One of those is the frequency of people’s voices. Everybody has their own modal frequency, which is the usual rate at which their vocal folds vibrate. At individual level, this is one of the factors used in voice recognition. At group level, it is one of the factors why we know where someone comes from. Every language community has their own modal range, which is usually different enough from neighbouring communities, so you know if an outsider is among you. That’s one of the factors that make you sound “off target” even if you have mastered other factors. Solution: Do you enjoy playing with your voice, imitating other people, specially different fictional characters, or even friends and members of your family? Then you have the vocal flexibility to actively manipulate and modify your vocal range and adapt. If your self-awareness prevents you from doing those silly things… you will never get anywhere. (Note: in case you were wondering… the vocal folds (often misnamed as vocal chords) are two membranes located in your larynx that regulate the outflow of air into the mouth. They have the ability to vibrate at high frequencies, and they produce a sound pulse which is modulated in the mouth and nose cavities to produce speech.)
- Degree of glottal closure (in women): All right, this is getting very nerdy. We are talking now about a space called the glotis. The glotis is the space between the vocal folds (see above), when they are not closed against each other. When we are speaking and the vocal folds are vibrating, the flow of air escapes according to the rhythm of those vibrations, so the folds open and close very quickly. For efficiency, it is very important that folds only let air escape when they have to, and otherwise no air escapes. However, in some places (e.g. the UK) it is frequent to find that many women’s vocal folds never close completely but stay partially open all the time so the flow of air is not interrupted but just drastically reduced. This results in that kind of female voice that sounds extra delicate and elegant, soft and effortless. If a female speaker comes from a language community where this does not happen, then she will sound different from native speakers. Solution: this is not a pathology, but objectively a full closure of the vocal folds is desirable, from an efficiency point of view. If you still would like to speak like that, you would need a speech coach.
Here is a video that shows what I am talking about. You will see the two vocal folds (those white membranes at the center) as they vibrate. they open and close. In this case they do not close completely, which explains why the voice sounds sort of “weak” or “airy” (not technical terms!) In most people, male and female, the gap between the folds closes completely before it opens again. As I said, this opening is not a pathology in itself, but some pathologies have it as a consequence. Note: this video is what is called a stroboscopy, which creates the same effect as stroboscopic lights at your local disco: it makes movement seem slower. This woman’s vocal folds are probably moving at a rate of about 150 times per minute, which is too fast for the human eye.
And this is the kind of voice you would hear: yes, that kind of gap was what gave Marilyn’s voice that dreamy, delicate touch.