And then one day they were arrested.
What for, you may wonder?
It turns out that the Murphys were actually Russian spies sent to collect information to send back to the Russian government.
They, along with several other couples discovered at the time, had gone undetected for years. But how could they fool everyone for so long?
The Murphys acted, looked and sounded just like any other middle-class New Jersey couple. They impersonated the local culture. Basically, they walked the walk and talked the talk.
These spies achieved something that all of us language learners dream of achieving: complete fluency to the point of blending in perfectly with native speakers. They had even mastered their accent so well that the locals couldn't even notice anything strange.
So how did they do it?
The Linguistic Life of SpiesIn a 2012 interview, former Russian spy Andrei Bezrukov revealed how he had managed to live undercover in the United States for over 20 years without anyone noticing a hint of a Russian accent.
In the interview, Bezrukov provides a very simple answer as to how he managed it: he didn't speak a single word of Russian.
"This is one feature of undercover work. You cannot use your native tongue, even at home; you have to be a control freak. That said, after working for several years, it comes naturally to you. You even have dreams in other languages. My wife and I now speak mainly in English and French."
In order to get to a point where he was ready to undergo complete linguistic and cultural immersion, Bezrukov had a lot of training, however.
While countries like the U.S. and Russia naturally aren't eager to reveal their language training programs for spies, there are a few things we do know. First of all, we know that spies-in-training probably spend up to 8 hours a day in private language classes, followed by several hours of personal study time. As you can imagine, this intense training pays off.
Unfortunately, however, not all of us have the time and resources for this kind of training
So what can you do if you want to improve - or even master - your accent in your foreign language?
We have some tips.
Immerse yourself by reading, watching and listening.Fortunately, you no longer need a passport and plane ticket to "travel" to a country where the language you're studying is spoken. Movies, music, television series, books, newspapers, magazines...all of these great resources are easier to access than ever and can provide you with the immersion your brain needs.
Reading, watching and listening all have a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to the language you're learning, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words. Then, it tries to make sense of new structures. It even tries to figure out the best way to pronounce them.
Basically, you're learning without feeling like you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using words and pronunciation that you didn't even study thanks to your brain's ability to soak it all up.
One word of warning, though: if you really want to get useful pronunciation help, make sure that what you're reading, watching or listening to is modern and in a dialect that you would like to learn. After all, speaking like Don Quixote won't help much on your next vacation to Mexico!
Listen to native speakers regularly.Similarly, you should listen to native speakers as much as possible.
Listening to them will not only help to improve your listening skills, it will also help you become accustomed to their accents and pronunciation.
After all, the more you listen, the more familiar you will become with the language and its unique sounds. Try to listen to native speakers as much as possible and pay attention to how they pronounce their words.
Mimic native speakers.Now that you're listening to your foreign language as much as possible, it's time to dive in and start speaking.
One of the best ways to do this is by mimicking native speakers.
To do this, all you need is a recording in your native language (whether it be a movie, series, podcast, song, speech, etc.) and a comfortable place to speak. Then, all you need to do is watch or listen to the recording and mimic what the speakers are saying.
In the beginning, you can try to pause or rewind the audio to be able to understand and repeat better. Try to mimic the tone, sound and rhythm of the speaker you're listening to. After a while, however, you should simply try and repeat everything you hear as it's being said.
This method is extremely effective and is also used in the well-known shadowing method.
Repeat, repeat, repeatThere will always be certain sounds that are just more difficult to pronounce than others. For these, the best bet is repetition.
Make a list of the words that you find more difficult to pronounce along with an explanation to remind you how to pronounce them. Then, whenever you have some free time, try to pronounce them out loud or in your head. That's right: even imagining yourself saying them correctly helps!
You can also make flash cards with these words and sounds or even write them on Post-it notes to post around your home or office.
Get some help from a native.Having a native speaker help you out is an extremely helpful way to practice your accent.
This is one of the best ways to not only get used to the sounds, but also get some feedback and help with those extra tricky sounds. Plus, it's a very fun way to get to know another person and learn about their culture!
However, this is often easier said than done, especially if you don't live in a big city. So how can you find a native speaker?
Here are a few ways:
- See if anyone in your network of family, friends and coworkers knows a native speaker who they could introduce you to. It's amazing who you can meet simply through word of mouth!
- Consider hosting a native speaking traveler from Couchsurfing or check out Meetup to see if there are any other language learners or native speakers in your town or area.
- Find a language partner on italki. This social language learning network can help connect you with native speaking teachers and language learners to practice.
- There is also a wide range of other free language exchange websites that can help you meet native speakers and start an online language exchange.
- If you're learning a language that isn't spoken by many people or are learning a dead language, then your best bet is to extend your search to fellow language learners and find one who is at a more advanced level than you.
Record yourself speaking.Recording and listening to yourself speaking is one of the most powerful hacks to improve your accent and pronunciation.
If the thought of this makes you wince, you're not alone. After all, the majority of people hate having to listen to a recording of their own voice. However, we promise that you'll get used to it with time, especially after you realize how helpful it is.
All you need to do is use the voice recorder on your phone or computer to record yourself saying phrases that you have troubles pronouncing. You can even practice tongue twisters to help master those tricky sounds!
Then, listen to yourself as if you were someone else.
It will be easy to criticize your problems, but remember to also celebrate the small victories and reward yourself for what you're doing well. Then, try to pick apart your mistakes, identify which words you need to practice, and repeat them until you're feeling confident.
If you're not sure if you're pronouncing something correctly, share your recording with a native speaker and ask for some feedback. You can even ask them to record something for you that you can use as a guide.
You don't need to be a spy to have a great accentNo matter what, remember that you don't need to go through intensive spy training to get a great foreign accent.
You just need to take advantage of a few helpful hacks to practice and tune your ear to your foreign language. Don't be afraid to ask some native speakers for help. Odds are, they'll be delighted to practice with you!
Do you have any tips or tricks you use to practice your pronunciation? Feel free to share them below in the comments section!
By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger. Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.