Foreign accents

At the moment I’m writing an essay on the acquisition of foreign pronunciation. There seems to be a widespread belief that people who start learning a language at an early age are more likely to speak it with a native accent, while those who learn languages as adults tend to speak them with foreign accents. The essay is exploring whether this is true, and what factors contribute to the acquisition of native-like pronunciation.

While there’s plenty of evidence indicating that the younger you start learning a language, the more native-like your pronunciation will be, there are exceptions to this – some adults manage to acquire native-like pronunciation in foreign languages, while not all children do so. Other factors that seem important include the length of time you’ve spent in a country where the language is spoken, the amount of exposure you get to the language, how much you use your first language, whether you have a talent for oral mimicry, and how important it is for you to speak the language like a native. Other factors don’t seem to be as important.

In my case, I aim to speak languages with as little foreign accent as possible, and am reasonably successful in this. I think I have a good ear for languages, which might be related to my musical abilities, and am quite good at oral mimicry. I find that mimicking the way foreigners speak English and doing the same when I speak their language helps.

Do you speak an foreign languages with a native-like accent? What has helped you to do so.

20 thoughts on “Foreign accents

  1. I speak German with an accent native-like enough that they think I am German; my grammar isn’t perfect, and my vocabulary is still somewhat limited, but in terms of pronunciation Germans I meet assume I am one of them. I’ve lived here in Saxony for a little over a year and a half, and use my native languages as infrequently as possible (English seldom, French even less often); that is, I actively avoid speaking them with Germans. German is actually my second foreign language, after Spanish (which I apparently speak with a dutch accent :S), and I learned most of it except the basic grammar and a few words here in Germany. It’s not really important for me that I speak that well, though, at least not consciously. I would also say I have a talent for oral mimicry, as people can tell me phrases in their native languages and I usually get them reasonably correct after the first or second try.

  2. My personal experience indicates that proper intonation and pronunciation of a foreign language can be achieved through training. I was raised in a bilingual household (Spanish and English) and can switch back and forth from native pronunciation in both languages, so, perhaps, this has made the acquisition of third and fourth languages (with regard to pronunciation) a bit easier. For example, having acquired native-level Spanish pronunciation naturally from my parents may have facilitated my accent acquisition in other Romance languages. Also, I have seen many adult English learners go through accent reduction training at the language services firm where I work, and they have achieved native-like pronunciation in relatively short time.

  3. I kinda try not to speak with an accent as well but lately I’ve been thinking: why try it?

    (As long as others can easily understand what you are saying), they’re still going to know that you’re not a native, and you know you are not, so why pretend being one?

    (Well, you might say speaking a language without an accent doesn’t mean pretending but, well, I think it some sense it does. And even if it doesn’t, that still leaves the question open).

  4. Well, people say I speak English with an american accent.
    In my days, we learn English in schools starting from age 11 or 12 as far as I remember, and mostly no expose to English before this time. The English used for teaching is british and not american though.

    Maybe the TV helped me a lot although I don’t watch it now but I used to I guess when I was a kid. It could be also that I’m left handed that, as some researchers say, would help out in learning a language or so.

  5. When I learn languages, I always tend to learn the pronunciation with the native accent, so it comes naturally. English is not my native language, but it is my most fluent. Tamil was first, some Hindi second, and English third. Exposure helps.

  6. The best way to acquire a proper accent without spending years on location is to get some tapes meant for teaching it to actors. Mouth positions, issues with specific sounds, intonation tilts. I got a pretty convincing British accent out of one and I’m Russian.

  7. I would be interested in how people define the accent of a native speaker.

    I was born and raised in the Southern US (though I have never had really had the typical thick Southern accent), native English-speaking parents, but now live and work overseas. Sometimes when I return the US, I am asked where I’m from, if I’m European, etc. I can feel and tweak the difference in my accent, but I wouldn’t say I speak with a non-native accent.

    In my experience, the more I study foreign languages, the more sensitive and analytical I become to speech, pronunciation, grammar, etc, and the further away I get from that insensitive instinct of native speaking.

    Really interesting topic.

    Simon, how would you define these terms that are often tossed around in this context:


  8. I think oral mimicry is a very big part of it.
    I can’t speak any foreign language fluently but I can speak reasonable Catalan. I think my accent when speaking it is also reasonable but my girlfriend, who is Catalan, says that my accent is best when I am actually doing an impression of a Catalan person we know.
    So, I think it is a good idea to try to do your best impression of how you think natives speak while you are speaking their language. After a long time doing this, it will just seem natural, and that will then be just how you speak the language.

  9. I usually get the accent, often involuntarily, after some considerable amount of time of consecutive listening, that is, after listening to a person with an accent for more than just a few minutes and getting used to it. For conscious accent imitation when learning a foreign language, I usually first mock it, as in repeating the distorted initial auditive impression I get (like when Western people imitate Chinese talking and they seem to be mocking more Cantonese than Mandarin, for obvious reasons). I then, in a serious mode, tone that distorted impression down and try to accurately and seriously imitate the accent using words and sentences I’ve learned already.

    Watching movies where most actors speak with the same accent is always a sure bet to mentally absorb the accent, given the amount of time of consecutive listening. To distance myself from my own persona and place myself in the lives and interaction of the characters in the movie helps a lot to familiarize with the language and to avoid the obstacles of other language influences in my head.

  10. Getting a perfect native accent isn’t my first priority with a language, but I try to sound enough like a native that it’s easier for natives to understand me and that my accent doesn’t sound jarring.

    Listening to tapes, radio and movies has helped me.

  11. Tommy – intonation refers to the rise and fall of the voice, pronunciation refers to the overall way you say things and includes intonation, and enunciation (inunciation does not exist) refers to pronouncing words clearly.

  12. I have a good ear, both for accents in English and also for foreign ones (my French used to be “non foreign”, initially a Belgium accent then SW france). My Spanish I had classes for (not just accent, but voice production for my lectures). I have actually realised that my accent is not going to improve while I am in Chile as I really don´t like the chilean accent and conciously avoid copying them, which makes it much harder. People tend to say I have a neutral accent. People in Latin America say it´s a bit Spanish (european) and people in Spain think I´m mexican or something like that. I model it on highlands spanish as spoken in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and especially Colombia. My teacher in Guatemala said my accent was neutral but perhaps ecuadorian. In chile people decide what my accent is on the basis of my clothes and the context in which we meet. If I´m wearing a Florida T shirt and I´m introduced as James they think I´m gringo. If I am wearing a suit and just speak to people they usually cannot work out where I´m from (normally.. tiredness makes me sound English, and annoyance makes em sound Spanish)

  13. Oral mimicry ability definitely varies between adults. I sing a choir, for which being able to match pitch, volume, tone (in the musical sense) and pronunciation with the rest of one’s section is an essential skill. I keep forgetting that this isn’t something everyone can do easily (but I keep getting reminded everytime I go to a birthday or Christmas party). I don’t think it’s gotten any harder for me to imitate accents as an adult– in fact, I think it’s gotten easier, in part because of all the musical practice.

    The one thing I have noticed being significantly different learning foreign languages before and after puberty is in reading. The grade school (primary school) I went to taught everyone a little bit of French– mainly lists of words, very little grammar. The main thing I retain from that is the ability to look at French words and know instantly how they’re pronounced, without any recollection of all the rules involved. With everything I’ve learned since puberty, I can still articulate complete lists of pronunciation rules.

  14. my friends say that my english is close to an american accent, but americans say i speak with a noticeable accent, and i don’t think, at 21, there is anything that i can do to remove that hint of filipino accent that i have, which i don’t mind. i think having an accent is cool, as long as you’re comprehensible.

  15. I think the main reason adults don’t aquire or don’t want to aquire a native-like accent is exactly because of what Lyzazel said: Adults think their identity is fixed; kids could care less. Trying to speak like a native: “That would mean–gasp–that I’m denying I’m a Texan!” Some seem to think it is simply impossible to aquire a native accent, so they don’t even try. A friend said about her accent in Spanish: “Well, it’s not like you can study how to aquire a native accent.” I told her that’s wrong and that I could tell her a few things to improve it. But she wasn’t interested. I could have told her: you keep aspirating your p/t/k sounds at the beginning of words; your vowels are still a bit diphthongy; you don’t pronounce the “d” as “th” where you’re supposed to, etc.

    People who speak with thick accents, even if perfectly understandable, are much more likely to be stigmatized by the native–though it depends a lot on the country and languages involved, as well as race, gender, class, and looks. But it’s sorta like being able to speak slang: When my Mexican Spanish teacher first started inviting me to also hang out with his Mexican friends in the cantinas, I was basically watching on the sidelines as they rattled off in slang. Sure, if I asked in my school-boy Spanish, “Pardon me, but could you please pass me the ashtray?” they would all understand me. But it wasn’t until I too was able to rap with them in slang that I felt that they accepted me in a much deeper way.

  16. I was talking to friends the other day about this. Aparently in Japan and Korea, there are many Mongolian people with little or no accent. The only way to tell them apart is through vocabulary choice.
    Interestingly, it seems many Korean and Japanese people cannot go the other way. (I’m not positive on this).
    I am a teacher of Korean in Australia. I find that one of the biggest handicaps put on my students is spelling. I taught my students today the word ‘dojang’ and they had perfect pronunciation until it was written on the board – then they started saying it as ‘doujaeng’! (The funny thing is that Australian English has all the sounds to say it accurately!)
    I’m wondering if people are illiterate, then learning the pronunciation accurately is easier…?

  17. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  18. I have a pretty good accent even in foreign languages which I don’t speak very well. I make pronunciation errors in French, but they are non-systematic – ie not the specific set of errors which an English speaker of French usually makes. As a result, native speakers know my accent is not quite right but can’t quite place it. In France they think I have a Belgian accent, and in Belgium they think I have a French accent.

    A good accent is fantastically useful. It’s hard for native speakers to believe that someone can have a really good accent without being fluent, so I think my accent makes people overestimate my ability with the language.

    I learned French at school but not particuarly young, and I have a good accent in languages I have learned as an adult. I think it’s about oral mimicry.

  19. Nice blog indeed!
    I’m a french-speaking Belgian and been living in London,UK for over 8 years.
    When I speak English here in England, I often have people telling me I sound like a mix of Jamaican, cockney and dutch. I got told many times that I sound black, even tho Im caucasian. People understand me fine and that my accent is unique and no one guess French is my first language. I’m kinda glad I don’t sound French, because It gets on my nerves when I hear one.

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