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Subject: Not picking up accent of new language
Question: What are the reasons why some people never pick up the accent when they learn a new language and speak it for many years?

I know well-educated people from non-English-speaking countries who have lived in the US for 4+ decades, and who speak fluent English constantly every day.

They rarely speak their first language, yet they retain an accent so thick they can be difficult to understand.

Is there a kind of tone-deafness to accents?

Reply: There is almost certainly a mix of reasons.

I agree with some of the others that the main reason is psychological -- when we speak we want to express an identity and it can be difficult to decide on an identity for a new culture. If I was French, what sort of French person would I want to be???? As we grow up we come to a sense of the kind of person we are, and the way we speak is part of it.

If you decide on what kind of accent you want to use in your new culture, you need to have a good deal of systematic exposure to it in order to stand any chance of getting it right.

Some of it is to do with skill. Some people have good skills at picking up and imitating new accents -- Meryl Streep is an example of an actor with a high level of skill. Our ability to learn how to do it is not fixed at puberty. What might be fixed is our DESIRE to imitate a strange accent, though.

There can't possibly be tone deafness to accent. Indeed, 'tone deafness' in music is a bit of a myth and is pretty much just a matter of not having learnt much about music in early life. A person without an accent would be a person not speaking.

You refer to 'thick' accents that can't be understood. Listeners have variable skills in understanding unfamiliar accents too. Remember that there will be people out there who will think that YOU have a 'thick' accent that is hard to understand.

Anthea

Reply From: Anthea Fraser Gupta      click here to access email
 
Date: 02-Sep-2012
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Not picking up accent of new language    Madalena Cruz-Ferreira     (30-Aug-2012)
  2. Re: Not picking up accent of new language    Nancy J. Frishberg     (30-Aug-2012)
  3. Re: Not picking up accent of new language    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (31-Aug-2012)

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