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

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