Loss or retention of accents

I have noticed that a foreigner who moves to the US will generally lose his accent completely if the person moves at or less than the age of 14. It seems that if he moves to the US after the age of 14 that his English accent is retained for life( i.e. Ricardo Montalban). Why is this? maturation of vocal cords; brain imprint? Please help me with some answers.


I have no research to back this up, but my impression is that the phenomenon you describe is related to puberty. Although my impression is purely anecdotal, the pattern seems unmistakable: Learn English from English-speakers before puberty, and you’ll sound like a native; but shedding an accent thereafter requires extraordinary effort and/or extensive training. And though my “evidence” is only anecdotal, the anecdotes are plentiful. Both parents are foreign-born non-native English speakers from two different countries, and I have spent more than the usual amount of time in a variety of “ethnic” circles.

There are certainly exceptions to this… the most notable is Mel Gibson. True, he was born in the U.S., but he grew up in Australia and these days only seems to have an Australian accent if he really wants one (I’m not just talking about films here, I’m talking about the way he is in interviews too). In fact, many of us who have experience acting and quite often have to put on different accents find it almost impossible NOT to adopt the accent of whatever group of people you’re with. A person like myself in the voice-acting field encounters this all the time. I do it and all my colleagues do it and we’re usually not aware of it unless someone points it out to us.

My husband (Nick) was born in England and moved to Canada in the early 70s when he was almost 9 years old. He’s now 36 and does not have an accent. My in-laws, on the other hand, still have their English accents but not to the same degree as when they lived there. It’s not as pronounced. When his grandmother comes to visit I can barely understand her for the accent.

The only time Nicks accent returns is when is talking to his family. I know instantly who’s on the phone when his accent returns.

I asked Nick once why he no longer has the accent. He said he didn’t really know except that the other kids didn’t - he just lost it without trying to. Not once was it “suggested” he speak without it.

I heard Henry Kissinger talking once on TV. He said that while he still has an accent, his brother lost his long ago. His brother explains that he is the only Kissinger who listens. I don’t know whether Kissinger’s brother is older or younger though.

While not a professional actor - ever since I have been a child I have practiced various foreign and domestic (USA) accents. Once at summer camp a friend and I did a low-key, reserved British accent (none of that monty python stuff!)for an entire week that convinced everyone at the camp that we were British (and most likely gay). It was a week afterwords till I could reliably speak ‘normally’. In my current job I often spend a lot of phone time with people in the south, and I find that when talking to them my voice starts to drawl out.

The most embarrassing thing happens when I speak to someone with a pakistani or indian accent - it will creap into my voice as well and is very noticeable! I’m always afraid they will think I am making fun of them. I am fairly certain that if I moved to a foreign country, regardless of what the language is that I would sound native within a few years.

But I still believe that the great majority of non-actors who enter this country after the age of puberty do NOT lose their accents. I do not know the reason. Young people who arrive in the US from any country seem to lose it completely. Why do they and why doesnt a person age 17 lose his. Even after being in this country for 50 years the accent is retained. Why?

I know what you mean, Cooper. Talking to someone with an accent different than mine (Texas via Pennsylvania) fills me with the urge to respond with that accent. It’s not because I want to mock them; I have a genuine compulsion to speak with that accent.

Speaking of my accent, I was born and raised in Texas, but now reside in Pennsylvania. I didn’t really have an accent in Texas, and it’s even less obvious now (I still pronounce “ten” as “tin” and “iron” as “ahrn”). Losing the accent wasn’t a conscious effort on my part; it just happened. However, I do find my accents returns slighly when talking to fellow Texans.

The story on Henry Kissinger is that he practices his accent in front of a mirror. Don’t know if it’s true or not, but I love to spread rumors…

Have any of you people ever heard the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” ???

Why should accents be any different than any other deeply-ingrained habit? With a constant and dedicated effort, one can habituate himself to speaking with a new accent. Due to the nature of their profession, this will be easier for actors than for other people. What’s the big deal?

I also slip into accents very easily. I met my husband-to-be at a Halloween party, where I was Scarlett O’Hara. I used my bedspread with a hoop skirt - but I digress. Anyway, when he called me for a date, he was really surprised when I didn’t have a drawl.

And don’t get me watching the Crocodile Hunter or I spend the whole night screaming, “Eesn’t she a byU-tee!”

Keeves: There is another saying that is the exact opposite of " you can’t teach an old dog new tricks" and that is " Its never too late to learn" There is a definite “readiness to learn” that allows a young child 's brain to learn and pronounce properly even two or more languages properly. Sure, post-pubescent individuals can but it is much more difficult for them.

Guy,whutchew doin in Pencilvayneea,boeh?
I don’t get yer point bout ten and iron. You tryn ta say sum folks caint pronunce um raht?
An English friend of mine has lost a lot of his funny way of talkin over the last 20 yrs or so.He came over as an adult. It comes back some when he returns from a visit back home to Shropeshire. An odd sound is an Englishman who has spent 20 years in Texas.

“Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.”-Marx

the thing I’ve noticed among foreign-english speakers (mostly college age exchange students) is that, despite their fluency, that can’t HEAR their own accent.

I had a friend in school who was french and had a super-typical, almost stereotypical “french” accent. When we would talk back to him in a French accent, he just wouldn’t notice. The ability to hear your own accent seems to be a difficult thing for an adult to do.

I think the idea of an accent disappearing in youths is probably due to peer pressure. As an adult the pressure to change how you are just isn’t there. High school people are notoriously known for “fitting in” if you have an accent that drastically distinguishes you from fellow classmates, you will try to change it. I had this happen when I moved to New Jersey in early high school. I used to say the word “ya’ll” but I actively took it out of my vocabulary because I got tired of the people pointing it out. Incidently, they would ask me if I ever rode my horse to school and would be earnest in their answer. I told them that I didn’t have to since I sold my oil wells to buy a big white convertable Cadillac with bull horns as the hood ornament. Some of the people there actually believed me. BTW, I never had a strong Texas accent but there are a few words where you can hear them in my speech if you actively listen for them.


Gasoline: As an accompaniement to cereal it made a refreshing change. Glen Baxter

There was something in the newspaper within the past two-four weeks saying that first language is learned/stored??? in one part of the brain and the second is learned/stored in a different place - we learn them different ways. I’ll look for it.

Aside from that, there has to be a talent/art/gift to picking up languages. Some of my sibs learned new languages with easy and others (including me) found it to be torture. Sheer unadulterated torture.

If your are one of the lucky ones who immitate accents well or pick up languages easily, can you also carry a tune? Not me, boy, need the proverbial bucket.

I was born in GA, my dad was from SC, and my mom was from NC. We moved to the mountainous SW section of VA when I was 5 y.o (where folks speak with an Appalachian accent, which is not a Southern one). However, I was hearing-impaired from 4 - 7 y.o. I now have a peculiar lack of any identifiable accent, something I attribute to being essentially deaf at a critical time.

A good friend of mine moved here from Australia and has been losing some of her accent. It’s still there but it is less pronounced.

Oddly she loses it completely on certain words… mainly because we teased her… like she used to pronounce “sure” as Shoo-wa
and now she pronounces it “shur” but it sounds VERY funny with the rest if the sentence being in her aussie accent.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

I’ve also heard of people who, for example, will go to University in England, even for a short while, and return to North America with British accents… any thoughts???

Civility costs nothing.

rmariamp- Your French friend may have been ignoring you. While most of us (by us, I mean people in general, not foreigners) have a hard time accepting that we have an accent, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is making fun of yours.

colvile- On people who return to the States with a British Accent. Just a WAG, but I think the technical linguistic term for that is “pretentiousness.”

I know there are studies that indicate that there are various “windows” for language acquisition, one of which typically closed in late puberty. Unfortunately, I’m too lazy to go look any of them up to cite them for you.

Personally, I’m a fair mimic of various accents, and do sometimes start unconsciously mirroring the accents of those around me. Nevertheless its clear that there are certain distinctions between sounds in some languages that I’m totally incapable of hearing.

Here’s what I heard while trying to learn the Russian word for “edible mushroom” from a friend:

d.e.m.: GREE-bee

friend: not GREE-bee, GREE-bee

d.e.m.: GREE-bee

Friend: No, no, no! GREE-bee

And so on…