Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
|Subject:||Not picking up accent of new language|
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?
This is a phenomenon which is recognized for many adult language learners, not only
for English learning. The accent issue is interesting, because it's quite distinct from
syntax and semantics. Yes, there are people who've been resident in their adoptive
country for many years, whose accent apparently stays constant while the rest of their
language competencies (vocabulary, ability to understand and make jokes, etc.)
continue to grow.
Juergen Meisel at Hamburg University has been studying exactly this phenomenon
among guestworkers (and their family members) in Germany. Here's his page, which
also includes a pointer to his book from Cambridge U. Press, and his several email
addresses: <a href='http://www1.uni-hamburg.de/romanistik/personal/w_meis.html' target='_blank'>http://www1.uni-hamburg.de/romanistik/personal/w_meis.html</a> (He's
apparently at University of Calgary as a visitor for several years.)
Eric Lenneberg was an important contributor to this discussion, as he suggested a
critical period for language development. While "critical period" has some controversial
aspects, the part about when accents become 'frozen' seems less a source of
arguments than other aspects: by puberty (or young adulthood) in a monolingual
environment, most people will have limited ability to change.
Two other sociolinguistic studies may also be relevant:
- William Labov's work on Martha's Vineyard accents from 1960s showed inward-
facing "local" accents and outward-facing more standard accents
- Penny Eckert's work on teenagers in Detroit and beyond,
<a href='http://www.stanford.edu/~eckert/adolescence.html' target='_blank'>http://www.stanford.edu/~eckert/adolescence.html</a>
|Reply From:||Nancy J. Frishberg click here to access email|