Why Are Accents So Difficult To Lose?

Why is it that people with foreign accents seem to maintain them their whole lives?

If your voice sounds funny, and everybody else’s doesn’t, how hard is it to adjust the way you speak so that you sound like everyone else? After all, you get to hear other people who speak normally every day.

Do they keep the accent because they have no motivation to eliminate it, or because they aren’t aware that they have it??


This doesn’t quite answer your whole question but I knew a woman who moved from England to the US and she kept her accent out of choice. Apparently, she thought the way she talked was correct and didn’t want to sound like an American. As for the people who have been in the country 20+ years and still have a strong accent, coughah-nuldcough I have no idea.


The current theory is that humans have a window of cognition for language acquisition that closes somewhat at puberty. Up until that time, your brain is receptive to pretty much all the sounds that the human vocal tract can make. After that time frame, your brain pretty much locks onto whatever sounds you have become familiar with and it is very hard for you even to “hear” the other sounds, much less be able to reproduce them.

So, if you move to a new country at age 10, you will most likely learn the new language fairly easily, and w/o an accent. If you move there at age 16, it will be much harder to learn the language and near impossible to speak w/o an accent.

Of course, some people are better than others at losing their accents, and this phenomenon described above isn’t like a switch that turns on at puberty. There is a gradual loss of language acquisition ability throughout childhood, then a steep drop at and after puberty.

Obviously you haven’t tried learning a second language as an adult, because everyone who does will have an accent. Unfortunately I don’t have a cite, but I remember a linguistics class long ago where this was discussed. Apparently your ability to produce certain sounds is determined at a young age. This is because your vocal apparatus (chords, throat and tongue) needs to be formed in a certain way. Once you reach adulthood, you lose the ability to produce new sounds and you will be stuck with an accent. However, if you learn multple languages as a child, you better your chances of not having an accent when you learn new languages as an adult.

That’s the basic idea, though I’m sure there are other psychological or social reasons.

i moved around alot when i was younger and have picked up bits of accents everywhere. i find that i pick up accents very quickly. for instance i was in america for a month a couple of years ago and picked up a slight american hint in my accent where as you see other british people who have lived in the states for most of their lives and havnt the slitest touch of an accent

Just curious… have all the recent Arnold soundbites motivated your question?

Apart from your brain’s ability to absorbed a new accent, it also depends on the person’s urge to blend in. Obviously when you’re a child it matters a lot that you’re not “different”.

Once your older there is a degree of how strong an individual you are and whether you mind standing out. It’s mostly subconscious, but I’m sure some make a point of not changing and some deliberately do all they can to adopt an accent. But everyone does it, no matter how distinct and unchanging an accent you think you have.

Well, “erratic” would have the “a” in “cat.”

In my Midwestern accent, we merge together a lot of vowels that are differentiated in other accents. All the words within these sets are pronouced identically –

Mary, merry, marry
caught, cot
horse, hoarse
do, dew
pearl, purl

But we do distinguish –
pin, pen
git, get
tin, ten

I think it is also dependent on how good you are at listening, mimicking or what kind or environment you are in when you learn a new language (or develop it further). I don’t consider myself a great language learner but after 6 years of immersion language learning in Japan, on the phone, locals thought I was local and just really thick (as in ‘not intelligent’) if I used the wrong praseology. I started to preface every conversation with a stranger on the phone with ‘I’m a foreigner’. I first went there when I was 24, so not an adolescent and had never studied the language before.
Both my parents were born in England but left in their early twenties and have lived in many countries, have been in NZ for 25 years but still have English accents - although not strong ones. I have a conglomeration of English, NZ, American and Aussie so people think I’m South African! But I can put on any of these accents when I concentrate, they just come out altogether when I don’t think about it.

Trust me, after a certain age you’ll have an accent, no matter how strong your “urge to blend in”. Remember, this post is about foreign accents, not slight differences like English vs Amercian accents. Of course people may succeed to varying degrees, but there is a real physical limitation.

Arnold Schwartzenegger is the perfect example. No one has a greater “urge” than this guy, yet after years of coaching and speaking English as his main language, he still has a strong accent. It’s not going away. The odd thing is he may in fact have more trouble speaker German since he has probably lost the vocabulary by now.

I think people can change accents into adulthood. My buddy is a 4-year Californian (coming from Texas) and he has lost his Texas accent completely.

However, one day we were pulled over by a policeman, and being very nervous he started talking with his Texas accent again.

Awful cute. :slight_smile:

Made me wonder if accents are acquired like languages, and there might be a correlation between one’s ability to learn new languages and using a new accent.


I’m pointing out in my previous post, that I don’t have an English speaker’s accent when I speak Japanese and I never learned a word of it until I was 24 - I ‘blend in’ on the phone but certainly not to look at. I can even speak local dialect well enough to confuse some of the older villagers who can’t work out why this villager looks like a big white chick.

As I happen to be one of those furriners with an accent, I can say that while I’m very much aware I do have it, I have found it extremely hard to get rid of it on my own.

Speaking a foreign language taxes your brain in the first place - speaking it while at the same time focusing on shaping every syllable just so takes processing capacity away from what you were trying to communicate in the first place. Assuming that you’re even hearing that the sounds you make are different.

“Speaking normally” is a very local thing. Strictly speaking, if I were to lose my Danish accent, it would be because I adopted a Californian one. Who speaks accent-free English, anyway ? And as it happens, my voice sounds plenty normal to me, thankyouverymuch.

Spending untold hours with a speaking coach just to blend in seems counterproductive to me. If, OTOH, I couldn’t communicate, I would have a problem. But that seems to go pretty well.

When you’re adapting to a new environment, there are far more important things to watch when talking - idioms, forms of address, unsuitable subjects, humour - than making sure that your actual pronounciation makes you indistuingishable from the crowd. I’d much rather spend my grey matter on what elusive point I’m trying to get across.

I need to ask for a cite that your throat needs to form to the language. The above post is proof that at the least there are exceptions, and I would bet $50 that there’s no formation of the body happening at all.

There is a universally recognized limitation that kicks in around puberty, though. I know lots of 1.5 generation immigrants, and none of them have accents, while ones who moved here as high schoolers or older have real trouble losing it.

For you outside CA, listening to Ahnold recently has been a real hoot. He’s been made fun of for so long that it sounds like he’s trying to spoof himself, because he really is that bad. His accent is so strong, and so distinctive that you start to imagine that he’s doing it on purpose.

“It’s time for them to pay they-uh fay-uh shay-uh.” Hysterical.

As an Austrian, I can confirm that Arnold Schwarzenegger sounds funny no matter whether he speaks English or German (or rather tries to). When speaking German, he has more of an American accent than most other Americans I know. The reason may be that he is from Styria, a certain part of Austria where all people sound kind of funny to other Austrians, so why shouldn’t that apply to any other language they learn.

In general, to elaborate on what some of you have already posted, there is a certain (very large) set of sounds which humans can produce. Each of the languages uses only a very small subset of these sounds. A child has no preference for a certain subset of the sounds. Learning a mother-tongue (or more than one) basically means to loose the ability to recognize the sounds not used in the language(s), in order to focus on the sounds that are used and distinguish them better. A lLanguage learned during childhood usually become a mother-tongue, a language learned later in live usually becomes a foreign language. When speaking a foreign language, we mimic the sounds that make up this language using the sounds we know from our mother-tongue(s). We have no chance doing better, because we can hardly hear the other sounds, let alone reproduce.

Of course there are some people around who are very gifted or do not loose their ability to acquire yet another mother-tongue, but they are the exception.

As an example, there are really many ways how the letter ‘o’ can be pronounced. In the German language (my mother-tongue), only three or four of these sounds are actually used. Only recently did I manage to HEAR the ways this letter is pronounced in English (though maybe not all the ways in all areas where English is spoken), some of which sound to me like a mixture of ‘o’ and ‘a’. But when I try to reproduce that, a speaker of English usually thinks I just say ‘a’ and may be confused. So I stick to my German ‘o’ and have an accent, but at least I am understood.

Another thing is the intonation of speech, which varies considerably between languages, but is rarely ever addressed in language courses. We have certain ways of intonating a sentence as statement, question, command and so on. However, when we apply these intonations, which we have learned for our mother-tongue, to other languages, this may sound funny at best, if not confusing. It is even harder to get rid of that kind of accent than it is with that cannot-reproduce-sound-exactly thing.

The vocal tract (which includes the throat, as well as the larynx and mouth) is formed by whatever language(s) you learn as a child. You lose this ability as an adult. But there are some who argue that the inability to fully acquire language as an adult is more cognitive in nature. Could be; I’m not an expert. Personally, I’ve seen many individuals master a second language in every way and still retain an accent. To me, this suggests a physical limitation, however you want to define it.


It’s not the vocal tract. It’s all a matter of how the brain processes language (both incoming and outgoing).

I am not an expert on language, but I am a professional singer and voice teacher, and I deal with foreign language both in my own singing and with my students every day. The idea of a “hard” physical limitation doesn’t ring true to me.

The vocal tract doesn’t form physically around language, but it does coordinate itself around language. A person learns to associate sound with sensation, and the two become coupled together. My educated guess is that you won’t find anatomical differences between speakers of different languages - rather, functional ones. And like all things involving the coordination of muscles, they can be changed, and new ones can be learned.

That isn’t to say that erasing an accent, or picking up a genuinely authentic new one is easy. It isn’t in my experience. But I don’t believe the difficulty is anatomical in nature, and I think it varies widely from person to person. People with good sound imitation skills are far better at it than those without.

I’ve sung in French, German, Italian, Russian, and Czeck - all to the complete satisfaction of native speakers. Granted, that is a lot easier than speaking convincingly, and I couldn’t do that without a great deal of practice, or perhaps at all. But it does suggest that the physical equipment to make any sound native to any language is present in all of us.

An accent is like a walk. You walk the way you walk, you talk the way you talk. But if you really had to, and had the aptitude, you could change either one.

What interests me is the lack of full corellation between accent and the other aspects of “fluency” – which can sometimes be surprising.

My (very inexact) understanding is that most Japanese take (at least ) a standard program of English in school (subject to exceptions, such as taking extracurricular English classes or advanced study). And . . . the particular sample group I’m thinking of here consisted of an even more homogeneous (education, vocation, and age-wise) group of engineers that I had to talk to (and get information from).

I was prepared for the fact that some would have more spoken English ability than others (all can read quite well). What threw me for awhile, and led to some confusion, was the number of guys who had reasonably good accents and pronunciation in what they said, so you’d be prattling away and think they were following, but they would eventually turn out to have no comprehension of about 80% of what I was saying. Then there were the guys whose accents were so strong I could barely understand what they were saying, but once I did, it became evident they were completely following the conversation and responding on-point. All complicated by the fact that the ones who didn’t understand anything (but could fake you into thinking they did by their good pronunciation of what little they said) were (being Japanese) far too polite to indicate that they weren’t following you.

Anyone have any cites on what degree of corellation there is between accent strength and (vocabulary/syntax/etc.), or the factors that would lead one aspect of the language to be mastered at a significantly different rate than others?