In addition to spending my whole life with my Australian dad, I spent 10 days in Australia this spring to remember my dad and see all my family. It was an emotional and deeply meaningful trip for me, but it was also the first time I’ve been back to Australia since becoming a speech pathologist. As most speech paths know, it’s hard to turn “being a speechie” off.
You should know that I’ve never been successful at making an authentic Australian accent, even though I’ve grown up with it. But during this trip, I finally figured out how I could start working my way towards a convincing Aussie accent.
I believe that although I was trying to learn the Aussie accent, the tips I’m sharing here would be applicable to anyone learning an accent:
- Learn Filler Words — It’s extremely obvious if you say “um” (from the American accent) in Australia. Australians say “mm,” instead of “um.” I picked it up within one day. When you travel, you do a lot of listening so it’s important to nail down your filler words right away to blend in.
- Know Prosody/Intonation Rules — Every language has its own musical intonation when it’s spoken. And each dialect has its own intonation as well. Prosody/intonation is laid down early — within the first 18 months of life. I have a head start on learning the Australian accent I guess, because I left to move to the US around 18 months of age. It goes without saying that Australia speaks English with a different musical intonation than American English. If you can’t travel to another country, watch YouTube videos of the target dialect spoken. Try to listen only to the melody of the language, the up and down overall tones of sentences, and then try to imitate it. It’s much easier when you are in country because you reflect the speech of those you interact with. Have you ever been to the south, and slowly adopted a slight drawl? It invades your speech because we are at heart extremely empathetic people. If you work on it, you will start to pick it up pretty quickly.
- Adopt Slang/Idiomatic Expressions — Australians are known for the use of slang and idiomatic expressions. I don’t know of any studies done, but I believe that Australians use more expressions and slang than any culture I know. They are masters of the turn of phrase. When I got there in the spring, I had to learn on the fly. For example, my cousins used the word “bogan” all the time. I tried to absorb it through context, but ultimately I had to ask. “Bogan” is a cross between “basic” and “redneck” and it’s a derogatory term. Google the phrase “slang of XYZ country” and print out all of the expressions they use.
All speech paths know that language comprehension is higher than language expression. What that means is that you know more than you express. For example, you can read a book and know a lot more vocabulary words than you would actually ever use expressively. Take that knowledge and build your comprehension of the dialect faster than you start expressing yourself. But don’t let that stop you from taking risks when speaking because that also gives you feedback about what you need to do to perfect your accent.
After you start learning fillers, intonation, and slang, you can continue learning vowel and consonant differences between the accent you have and the one you want to learn. That’s where working with a speech pathologist who specializes in accent modification would be helpful.
Learning consonant (and especially vowel) differences will take a lot of practice and drill, but knowing filler words, prosody, and some idiomatic expressions will make you sound like a local more quickly. I wish you all the luck in the world and I know you can do it!