Karen Van Hook, Ph.D.

Learning a New Accent is Like Driving On the Other Side of the Road

When you learn a new accent, you learn new muscle habits: new ways of moving the tongue and jaw and lips, and even the muscles in the throat. But the new habits don’t become automatic right away. Speaking with our first accent is automatic. Naturally, we want the new accent to feel effortless—and it can. But we need to give the new accent a chance to get “rooted” in our muscle memory.

The first time I went to the UK, I thought that driving on the left side of the road should feel just like driving at home—except “mirror image”. But the first day of driving on the left was a nightmare. I hit a curb and burst a tire.

A good driver has an automatic “mental map” of the shape of the car. You “just know” how much space the car needs. It’s like being a fluent speaker of a language: the mental processing is unconscious and automatic. When you drive on the other side, the steering wheel is on the “wrong” side of the car. Suddenly, everything that feels natural and easy is wrong. It’s confusing and overwhelming. But I made one big attitude change that made everything better:

I stopped impatiently trying to *make* it feel automatic. I stopped looking for mental shortcuts. I opened up my mind to a new experience. I took in all the sensory details: how things looked, how the car felt, how I heard the passenger’s voice from my left, everything.

Within a few days, I could feel that driving on the left was becoming automatic. Soon, it felt almost as easy as driving at home.

Learning a new accent is very similar. It will take more than a few days, but there’s no danger that anyone will get killed—or even that you’ll burst a tire. 

Often, a client finds exactly the right tongue position for the American accent and says something with good American pronunciation. And then they will suddenly look worried and say, “But I can’t talk like this all the time!” Actually, they can—but it will take more than 30 seconds of practice. It won’t feel automatic *right away*.

There’s a deeper parallel here. When we’re impatient for things to feel easy and automatic, the brain turns to things it can do automatically: our old habits. When I accepted that driving on the left was simply going to feel very, very weird for a while, and that I needed to fully absorb the experience—that was when my mind opened up and I began to learn how to drive on the left. 

To learn a new skill so well that it becomes automatic, we need to step away from our well-known habits and fully experience something totally new. If we surrender to the unfamiliarity, and stop worrying about “When will it feel easy?”—that’s when we get on the road that really leads to things becoming easy.

Successful parking on the left
Me showing off my triumph in England: neatly parking on the left (with no more burst tires)