This is mostly just a WAG, but part of it may be that foreign languages or dialects may include sounds that don’t occur in your native language, which makes it hard for the non-native speaker to make those sounds or even to hear them as distinct sounds.
In a language that’s foreign to you? Most likely they speak with an accent that you don’t hear either.
As I understand it, you can be trained to speak without a discernible accent. Secret double agents during WW2 weren’t uncovered because of their accent, but for subtle cultural clues like table manners and such.
My WAG is that it’s because things sound different to your own ears (since the sound emanates from within your own mouth and throat, and you hear it partly from *inside *your head rather than from outside) than they do to others.
I’ve been told that I have a heavy American accent when speaking Chinese, yet I could never find a way to eliminate the Yankee accent because to my own ears, my Chinese sounds perfectly natural, like that of everyone else around me who is *truly *speaking normal Chinese. I would have to sort of gaslight my mind into coming up with a new way to speak Chinese so that it actually comes out normal. I suppose that if I spent several hundred hours with a tape recording and practice, I might be able to pull it off, but never tried.
There are people who specialize in teaching other people to speak in an accent other than their native one. I think they call them “vocal coaches” and bigger budget movies/video use them a lot. You could, if you wanted to, hire one for your own purposes and they’ll very carefully work with you on how to produce the sounds of a particular accent or language. Of course, it’s intensive one-on-one training and the hourly rate is probably significant.
I knew someone who was from Ireland and lived in Canada as a teenager before coming to the US. She had a American accent. I asked her why and she said kids made fun of her Irish accent so she got rid of it. I did not ask how she did that.
Accents are strange. I am an accent chameleon; wherever I live, I adopt the local accent within a few months. This may be because I have no strong accent of my own. I find it extraordinary how some people keep accents down generations, even when they are ex-patriot, while others like me are soon speaking like a native.
A while ago I was putting petrol into my car and heard a guy behind me speaking with a pronounced Scottish accent. When I looked I was surprised to see that the guy was black.
I have two cousins, twins, who moved from New Zealand to the USA when they were young (pre-teen). I met them when they were about 16. The boy had a strong American accent while the girl sounded English. Why? The boy’s NZ accent had been made fun off and he’d adopted an American accent to fit in. On the other hand everyone thought the girl’s Kiwi accent was cute so she maintained it and, if anything, slightly accentuated the “cute” characteristics.
When you are a small child, up to somewhere around 7 or 8 years old (IIRC), your brain easily learns new languages and sounds. After this age, certain things become “fixed” in a sort of way. If you haven’t learned particular sounds or phonemes, you will not easily be able to learn them after this time. The classic example of this is the Japanese confusion with the English sounds for R and L. The Japanese equivalent is somewhere between the two and they only have one sound for it. If you don’t learn to distinguish between the R and L as a child, you will have great difficulty learning how to distinguish them as an adult.
They have done brain studies and have found that once you get above that critical age, people actually use different parts of their brains to learn languages. This isn’t my area of expertise so I don’t know how much of the neuroscience behind this they have figured out at this point. It may just be a vague “well, you learn languages better when you are young and use these parts of your brain, when your older you use these other parts and it’s not so good”. But there is clearly a difference between the two methods your brain uses to learn languages.
This isn’t to say that you can’t become fluent in another language as an adult, but it will be significantly harder than if you had learned the language as a child. Some people have managed to become so fluent that they can speak the new language without a noticeable accent. Other than “it takes a lot of work”, I don’t know of any methods that will help, foolproof or otherwise.
I’m 40% in the “What you THINK you hear determines how you pronounce words.” Part of it is the It’s the Yanny or Laurel effect. Which is affected by your hearing range which typically lessens in high frequencies range as you age.
40% in the “Your mouth and vocal muscles aren’t used to the different language.” A prime is the African Khoisan languages which includes clicks as part of the speech patterns.
20% (related to the first reason), is that just as your brain sees faces in images that are really nondescript, if you think someone is speaking with with no accent, your mind fills in the blanks and you “perfectly standard”* English or other language. An example of is when someone vocally impersonates someone. They use some, but not all of the vocal inflections of the person they’re impersonating and a lot of visual clues. Which is why it’s far more impressive when you see and not just hear the person.
*This is of course impossible given the variability of the human physiology.
Put all this together and often you, as a non-native speaker of the foreign language think the speaker is speaking fluently, especially when the listener is acknowledging what is being said, despite the speaker having an accent.
I think this is pretty much correct–though it’s important to distinguish between fluency and “accent.” One can be very fluent with an “accent,” in the sense the they may not produce segmentals exactly as a native speaker. Depending on the language, (and very much so with English), often it’s the suprasegmentals (syllable stress and intonation) that make one sound “fluent” in a native-like way just as much as, or perhaps more than, the segmentals.
A human is born capable of producing any phonetic or phonological characteristic from any possible language, but as the person grows, those sounds which are not part of the native language’s/languages’ repertoire(s) will become increasingly “foreign” as the brain develops–i.e., they don’t become “hardwired” if they aren’t part of the person’s environment. This means both receptively and productively, so if a sound does not have phonemic salience (let alone allophonic salience) in the native language(s) then the learner of a new language may not perceive it as distinct, and struggles to speak it accurately. (This is why listening and repeating alone so often is NOT an effective way to improve pronunciation of a new language. The learner needs motor-physical awareness of how the sound is produced, along with phonemic/allophonic awareness.)
But people obviously learn other languages at various stages of their lives, achieving widely varying degrees of native-like pronunciation, from one person to another. This is where there still is no single explanation as to why there is so much variation, but things like the characteristics of the person’s native language (i.e., is it tonal, etc.) and learner’s affect (how much he or she identifies with the culture associated with the language) all seem to come into play.
How are you with music ? I ask because I think the accent chameleon thing is related to having an ear for tones, rhythms and so on.
My mother speaks English with a proverbially horrible accent (30 years on we keep teasing her about that time she had to repeat her order for “white wine” 5 times before the US waiter brought her some house red) and could not carry a tune if her life depended on it. I’m an accent chameleon as well, and also a musical parrot : I can sing a song *exactly *how I heard it sung, singer’s quirks included. In fact I find it difficult work to sing a song “in my own voice” (to the extent I even have one of those) and without adding all the effects or flourishes of the singer I heard sing that song last.