An accent immediately lets people know or assume a person’s background, heritage, environment, education, and social circumstances. From the first words (and definitely the first sentence) accents tell others where people are from, what languages they speak, and who they spend time with. Whether you love your accent or hate it, having one is an inevitable part of talking. Accents are everyday examples to prove the age-old theory that “you speak what you hear.” Our native accents are effortless; however, once we become teenagers – and especially adults, changing an accent – that conglomeration of old habits – can be hard and takes WORK. What is it that makes accents so hard to change?
What is an accent?
Accents are everywhere. If someone is talking, they have an accent. No accent is “better” than another, and accents are NOT a communication disorder. They are a natural part of spoken language. Accents, as defined by The American Speech Language Hearing Association, are the particular ways that groups of people sound when they speak the same language. Sometimes accents are regional – meaning they are common among people from different geographic areas. In the United States, people from Massachusetts often sound different than people from Mississippi.
Accents from other languages are called National Origin Accents, sometimes called Foreign Accented Speech. Foreign accents are sometimes heard in non-native individuals who learn English as a second or third language as adults. These foreign accents occur because new language learners use the sound system, stress, rhythm, and intonation of their first language to substitute for nonequivalent sounds, words, and phrases in the new language. Groups of learners from the same first language background typically have the same accent because they share the same originating sound system, stress, and rhythm of speech.
Why is losing an accent so hard?
Our accents begin to form months before we utter our first word – around six months of age, according to Smithsonian Magazine several years ago. Babies are born with the ability to produce any kind of sound. If a toddler or child is exposed to two different languages, they’ll be able to speak both languages perfectly, no matter how different the two languages are. However, around age thirteen, the language center of our brains “turn off,” meaning the brain decides that our language learning is complete. If you start learning a new language in high school or after, you continually use your knowledge of your native language to categorize vocabulary and “translate” the words and sentences through silent rehearsal.
No matter the amount of time a person is exposed to a new language, the ability to lose an old accent and adopt a new one differs from person to person. Managing a new accent involves the ability to produce all sounds correctly while matching syllable stress, intonation, and rhythm to native speakers of the new language. This is why learning a new accent in a native language is easier than accent management in a new one.
How do I start changing my accent?
For people who have decided they really need to change their accent, numerous accent modification classes are available. These classes help people pronounce sounds correctly, while also modifying syllable stress, speaking rate, and intonation of speech. To help you with your accent, a speech-language pathologist (SLP), will learn about the way you speak in words, sentences, and conversation. The SLP will also ask you about problems you have with communication and what your goals are. She will use all of this information to set goals based on what is most useful to you.