At what age does an accent become permanent?

I debated posting here or in GQ but I don’t think there’s a real answer to this, so I’m really more interested in anecdotal replies. My husband and I are chatting about the idea of moving from Canada to Australia, possibly temporarily (5 years, say), and I’m curious about my kids’ accents. They’re 2 and 5 now, so I would imagine they would both pretty much fully take on an Australian accent, but what might happen if we were to move back to Canada at 7 and 10? Would they re-Canadianize?

I know some kids who are born and raised here in Canada by parents with accents, and some of those kids have a hint of whatever their parents’ accent is, while others don’t at all. What’s been your experience with kids moving to and from English speaking countries with distinct accents?

It seems that the crucial age is puberty. Before that, a kid’s accent isn’t “carved in stone.” Once that’s past, it’s very difficult to change your accent.

I dunno. Although I never did have much of a Texas accent, due largely to my father’s California accent predominating in the home, I did have a little. I left Texas at age 29, and today there’s not a trace of it.

We have close family friends who are English, but their kids grew up in the US until the age of 11 and 13, respectively, when the family returned to England. They both completed their educations in England with the daughter continuing to nursing school and the son getting his teaching certificate.

They are in their mid-30s now. The daughter, who was the older one, sounds totally American with just a shade of an “off” accent that most people wouldn’t peg as British, while her brother sounds totally English.

So based on my sample of 2, its around age 11-13 that the accent gets fixed.

I’m 36, and it takes about 20 minutes before I unconsciously start picking up another accent. 2 weeks in a place with another accent and my friends back home are laughing their asses off when I speak.

Some people are natural mimics, I guess. I hypothesize it has something to do with that theory that some “people persons” adopt the mannerisms or speech patterns of a person they’re talking to so as to (unconsciously) put them at ease and increase trust and cooperation. I think I do that with accents.

Please take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. First Language Acquisition is part of my research area, but I am more familiar with the acquisition of syntax (grammar) and lexis (vocabulary) than accents or phonetics (pronunciation).

My wild-eyed guess would be that an accent becomes fairly permanent around five- to six-years of age.

A child’s acquisition of the syntax of their first language starts around two, and ends around five or six. Once they reach that age, they’ve pretty well acquired all of the syntactical structures of their first language, and operate at the adult level in terms of grammar (but not vocabulary, obviously).

I would assume, therefore, that regional or dialectical pronunciation patterns would be mastered around the same time, if not much earlier.

Here are a couple of pages that explain the process of First Language Acquisition in more detail:

Cite 1
Cite 2

Interestingly enough, the Wikipedia page on “accent” claims that accents remain malleable until the twenties.

Cite 3

I followed the page that Wikipedia cited, and read the argument behind the claim.

Cite 4

To me, this seems to imply accent change occurs voluntarily (if somewhat, unconsciously). Again, I would argue that a person’s acquisition of their regional “accent” is going to be fairly set by the age of five or six, and any change after that would require effort.

Hope that helps!

I have a friend like that. We grew up five minutes apart, in Maryland. She married a guy from Brooklyn, lived there for a few years, and started sounding like a native New Yorker. She’s also really good at learning new languages.

We moved to Australia when my son was an infant and lived there until he was about 3.5. Now he’s eight and has an American accent with just a twinge of Australian pronunciations thrown in every once in awhile. It’s enough that people identify him as having an accent, but they can’t really place it. My husband is Australian, though, so even though we moved back when my son was very young, he still hears an Australian accent every day. He will often use American pronunciations with me and switch to Australian ones with his dad.

It’s argued that puberty is the cut-off age for first language acquisition. By this I mean that before puberty, children can acquire a language, or multiple languages, automatically.

The claim is that a child growing up in a bilingual household or region will acquire (not learn) both languages as a first language, and will therefore be a perfect bilingual with two “mother tongues”.

After puberty (the “Critical Period”) languages must be consciously learned (as opposed to automatically acquired) as a skill. After the Critical Period, a person can be multi-fluent in two or more languages, but would not be considered “bilingual”.


I would argue that a child under puberty can acquire the additional accent of another language, but that the accent of their “first” first language is set a few years earlier.

Again, I’m no expert on accent acquisition though, and these are just my musings!

Were you born and raised, in Texas? And if yes, might I inquire as to (generally) where?

Good, because that’s what I’ve got. :smiley: I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and lived there until I was 13, when my family moved to Minnesota. I didn’t lose my Bay Area accent until I went to college in Milwaukee at age 20. In my case, it was due to being completely immersed in a Wisconsin accent (living on campus rather than going home to my CA-speaking parents every night as I did in high school). I also attribute it to 1) taking singing lessons (read: being forced to make my vowels more nasally) and 2) climate (seriously, cold winters do weird things to your nasal passages). Now, my upper Midwest accent feels completely natural, and everyone who meets me is surprised when they find out I’m not a native Minnesotan.

Same here. We went to Texas when I was 19 to visit family and my mom got mad at me one day for making fun of our Texas relatives. I had no idea I was starting to talk like them. A few years ago I spent 10 days in London and it took me several weeks to fully get rid of whatever English accent I picked up the first day.

I knew a family that moved to England for work. They all came back with accents a few years later. I think they wanted to sound British. It’s such a cool accent that people copy it without being aware.

I had a strong Boston, Massachusetts accent (think JFK and RFK) until I moved back to the deep south (age 10). There’s no trace. I can’t even do it if I try. I’m southern all the way now.

I grew up with a very strong Southern accent (Northern Louisiana/Texas border). I started losing it quickly and unintentionally when I went to college with a broad mix of people from all over at age 18. I have lived in Massachusetts for the better part of my adult life. It is really hard for people to tell that I am Southern just from hearing me speak although people can usually tell I am not from the Boston area. I have a mostly generic American accent now although, oddly enough, I have never lived anywhere it is widely spoken. It is more of an averaging effect I think. I certainly don’t have any sort of New England accent and never will. I have recently spoken to some people on the phone that I haven’t talked to since high school and they have a hard time processing that it is really me because my accent is so different from theirs now.

I don’t think that people can completely shift accents like American Southern to British Received Pronunciation past childhood but I am an example of how some striking accent changes can happen even unintentionally in early adulthood.

Accents aren’t permanent.

People change their accents all the time. It requires a bit of effort at first and then it becomes natural. I changed my own accent from “poor folks” to “educated” in my teenage years. I can drop straight into “poor folk talk” if I want to, but my natural way of speaking now is “educated” and I speak that way even when drunk. It isn’t an affectation, it’s my natural accent now. My brothers all did the same thing - we were smart kids from a very poor background. All 3 of us can and do pass as well-educated people from a middle-class background.

I’ve known people who lost a foreign accent and gained a local one through conscious effort. If you think it can’t be done, you’re not trying hard enough. Actors do it all the time. Some actors can pick up an accent well enough to pass in a matter of weeks.

Agreed. It has more to do with the person not really being comfortable pronouncing words the correct way and/or making a concerted effort to learn and practice that pronunciation, because it most certainly can be done at any age.

Accents are a choice. Not necessarily a conscious choice, but ultimately still a choice.

I’ve noticed that Koreans who move to the US after about the age of ten never quite manage to lose their Korean accent when they speak English. It’s faint but it’s definitely there.

I moved a lot as a kid - time in Australia (0-3) the US (3-5), the Philippines (5-7), the UK (7-11), the US (11-12), Germany (12-14), New Zealand (14-29), UK (29-30) and Australia (30-35). Had a fairly US accent before I hit the UK, at which point it went completely Queen’s English. After 15 years in NZ I still have a basically English accent, but have somewhat of a Kiwi accent on certain vowels - my Is are more like Us (e.g Tim is pronounced Tum), and American Rs. I think it’s beginning to take on a slightly Australian twang after 5 years here now. Pretty confusing for most people - they eliminate Canadian, South African and New Zealand but can’t place it.

So, point being that there is a base level of my accent which I think will stay as it was in my early teens, but time in other countries after that have definitely altered it. So your kids could well pick their Canadian accents back up, particularly if they hear it spoken at home from you guys.

For some people, perhaps. I lived in Edinburgh for seven years with two Scottish flatmates and surrounded by Scottish friends for most of that time. I never lost my Wigan accent and picked up a Scottish one. The most that can be said was that my accent was tamed a bit to make it at least understandable to those outside Lancashire. When I speak with my parents or friends from back home, my Scottish girlfriend complains she can no longer understand me.

The fact that actors can regularly change accents is neither here nor there. That’s their job. It’s like pointing to mathematicians and saying everybody can learn algebraic geometry if they just apply themselves enough.

Both I and Mrs. J. grew up in places with strong regional accents (NYC and the Boston area) and lived there until going off to college. We’ve lived in various places (including Texas) since then and have long, long ago lost whatever regional accents we started with.

I suspect the really strong accents are the most persistent, but as noted there’s a lot of individual variation. I definitely don’t believe anything is set in stone just because you’ve reached puberty.

It can vary a lot. My mother left Texas for good at 26 (and had spent some time living outside Texas between the ages of 22 and 25) and has lived hundreds of miles from Texas ever since. It’s been 30 years and she still has a very obvious East Texas accent.

Even within a family there can be a lot of variation. Some of my mother’s siblings don’t have such a strong accent, even though they’ve lived in Texas their entire lives. I have a friend from Boston who doesn’t have much of a noticeable Boston accent, but her sister does. Funnily enough the first thing I ever heard her sister say when I first met her was “Where should I park the car?” and it sounded to me just like someone imitating a stereotypical Boston accent!