Non-native speakers usually really wish to sound very much like native speakers in their accent, probably to go with the saying that “what is worth doing is worth doing well. The prestige that goes with speaking English certainly also increases with how well the L2 (second language) speaker is able to speak it. The challenge of acquiring the proficiency is higher for those living outside native speakers’ environment; even though some foreigners have the opportunity to leave with L1 speakers, yet do not assimilate. However, it is still a fact that there are those who have not had much encounter with native speakers but have been able to learn the language well and speak almost completely like the native speakers. The first question that I wish to attempt answering in this discussion is “how is it that non-natives learn the English language, yet cannot sound like the native speakers in their pronunciation of English words.”
It is important that we first see what problems are there before going for solutions. The following pose difficulty to non-native speakers who wish to speak like native speakers.
The first and most obvious of the challenges is the influence of mother-tongue on the learner’s speech manner. As an L2 learner of English, one definitely has his first language which one’s organs of speech would have been trained to speak. One should understand that there are sounds of English that are not present in the sound system of his first language. In such case, one would always replace such sounds with sounds in his L1 (first language). If for instance your first language does not have /a:/, the vowel in cart; you are likely to pronounce cart and cat the same. Also pick and peak will not be differentiated in speech if your L1 does not recognize the deference between /I/ and /i:/ beyond just the difference in length. Learners often think that the difference is just that /i:/ is longer than /I/, which is not correct. Imagine if a person you meet on a plane says to you “to die is good for you,” what will be your reaction? Whereas he actually means to say “today is good for you”. This is the result when a person replaces /ei/ (as in say) with /ai/ (as in sigh).
How language is used cannot really be separated from one’s behaviour except with conscious effort by the language user to separate his/her speech manner from the social behaviour around. The circle of linguistic influence a person is exposed to goes a long way in determining his language proficiency. If for instance one is discussing with friends in an informal setting where the friends are non-native speakers of English, the speech manner will most likely be casual and highly colloquial. In a formal setting, one is quite likely to be more coordinated in his speech. Those moments of casual discussions can go a long way reducing one’s concentration on the correct articulation of sounds thereby impeding the person’s adoption of the native English accent.
The variety that one often hears
This may to some extent relate to social influence discussed above. To a large extent, you can decide what you give attention to and what you allow to interest you. Though you have a group of socially influential people around you, you can still be more interested in something more private. The problem here is that the dominant accent you hear often unconsciously sticks in your memory and without deciding it, you just find yourself exhibiting them. So your speech manner eventually is not what you decidedly learn but what has taken over you. This means that if you have to listen to speeches said in the poor varieties, you must be critical so that you will be guided by your assessment of what you call right or wrong.
Improve your ability to use your speech organs
You can get rid of this problem by ensuring that you improve your ability to use your speech organs to produce all the sounds of English correctly, and also mindfully use them in pronouncing English words. When you say a word in a way that you realise is not correct, you should immediately say it in the correct way; with that, it will gradually become part of your subconscious linguistic ability and you won’t have to think hard before you can say the same word correctly when you speak.
Do not get too casual when speaking English
I suggest that you should deliberately coordinate yourself and not get too casual when speaking English, particularly when you are learning to improve your English. After you have internalised the speech skills, you can always speak conveniently in any situation.
Define your interest as regards speaking English
Another way out is that you need to define your interest as regards speaking English. Be interested in hearing what you want to imitate. Listen to documentaries, news and watch movies that will help develop your ability to speech well. You can decide to consider English spoken differently as substandard and judge it in your own way. For example, a news caster pronounces success with stress on the first syllable; you should be able to tell yourself within you that the proper pronunciation of the word places the stress on the second syllable. Whatever goes contrary to what you have learn as correct should attract some personal criticism within you, that makes you conscious when you speak and makes you improve your English with time.
Do a personal practice by recording your speech
You can also do a personal practice by recording your speech and then listening to it and taking note of areas you need to work on. This can be done when you are either alone in your room (maybe you read a passage) or during a discussion with someone. When this is done, you can listen to yourself over and over again. When you notice areas you are not satisfied with, you can correct it in the subsequent recording. You can start by speaking slowly and later increasing your speed until you can say the chain of words with ease.
It will help a great deal if you teach someone what you have learned in pronunciation. If a person pronounces a word wrongly, you should be able to kindly tell the person that the word is pronounced this way and not that. This is good because what you teach someone sticks more to you.
Use your dictionary
Use your dictionary to look up words whose pronunciations you are not certain about. This will require that you always have your dictionary with you. Make your pronunciation dictionary, which can be installed in your mobile phone, your good companion. This is more dependable than asking because sometimes you may ask someone who will give you an answer he is not quite sure about. This is why is very important you learn the different English sounds and their symbols.
This is just a few areas that can be worked on to improve one’s proficiency in English pronunciation. However if you can use them you will experience a change in your speech; then you can proceed to other areas like intonation and stress.