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Retaining an Accent

Why some people retain an accent in a second language

Post written by François Grosjean.

In an earlier post, I discussed the longstanding myth that real bilinguals have no accent in their different languages. I showed that having an accent in one or more languages is the norm for bilinguals; not having one is the exception (see here).

A few weeks ago, a friend wrote to me to ask why it is some people retain an accent and some do not. She was quite aware of the maturational aspect that underlies the phenomenon (accents are maintained beyond a certain age in early adolescence) but she rightly pointed out that some people who acquire a language before age ten, for example, have an accent whereas others who acquire it later do not. Why is that?

I relayed her question to my colleague, Professor Emeritus James Flege of the University of Alabama, who is the world's expert on the question. He very kindly directed me to a few of his papers and sent me a keynote lecture he had given at an international conference a few weeks before.

James Flege mentions a number of factors that explain the presence of a foreign accent. Among them we find the maturational factor that we have already discussed as well as interference from the other language(s). In a 1995 paper with his colleagues Murray Munro and Ian MacKay, he divided interference into two sub-factors: "habit formation" (first language sounds are substituted for second language sounds) and "incorrect perception" (language learners fail to perceive accurately the phonetic details of a second language). Other factors James Flege mentions is motivation to produce the exact sounds required (motivation can decrease, for example, if articulatory errors do not impede communication), individual differences (they include language history, language habits, as well as sometimes not wanting to sound like a native speaker) and, finally, the phonetic input bilinguals have received (for example, hearing others speak the second language with or without a foreign accent).

In their 1995 study, James Flege and his colleagues examined the English pronunciation of 240 adult native Italian speakers of English who had begun learning English when they emigrated to Canada between the ages of 2 and 23 years. When recorded, they had been there for an average of 32 years and reported speaking English more than Italian. The authors found that the age of learning English exerted a systematic effect on the bilinguals' production of English. The earlier the age of arrival, the weaker the accent. This can be explained by the maturational factor but also by the amount of English heard and spoken since their arrival.

But clearly other factors are present too. For example, in a later study that used a subpart of this vast database, James Flege and other colleagues found that those who spoke Italian relatively often had significantly stronger foreign accents than those who seldom spoke Italian. It was as if the more frequent activation of their first language, Italian, had an impact on the pronunciation of their second language.

In his recent keynote lecture, James Flege comes to the conclusion that the second language input heard by bilinguals over the years will eventually be shown to be more important than other determinants that account for the pronunciation level reached in that language. The evidence he brings is based in part on an unpublished study Ian MacKay and he conducted a bit more than ten years after their 1995 study. They wished to see if their already very experienced users of English were capable of improving their pronunciation of that language. To do this, they rerecorded 160 of the original 240 Italian immigrants with identical procedures and equipment.

A first analysis of the results obtained seemed to show that there was no change in the speakers' pronunciation of English; the correlation they found between the results of the earlier and the later study was an amazing 0.97. Could this be a sign that the pronunciation of their participants was "fossilized"? In fact, a closer analysis of the results showed that the pronunciation of a bit more than a third of the participants had become slightly worse over the ten year period whereas the pronunciation of some 14% had improved slightly.

To try to understand this, the researchers defined three groups: a group that now used less English (as compared to 1992), a group that used English more, and a group where there was no change. For each group, they examined the pronunciation of a number of consonants (these are clear indicators of the presence of an accent or not) and they found that the group which had used more English in the interval showed the most improvement in pronunciation. The group that had not changed in their use of English showed some improvement, but less, and the group that had used less English remained at the same pronunciation level.

James Flege believes that the group that used English more probably came into contact with a greater number of English monolinguals with whom they had to speak English. Hence they heard more accentless English which in turn had an impact on the pronunciation of their English sounds. This reinforced his hunch that input (both type and amount) is an important factor in second language pronunciation. As he so nicely puts it, "You are what you eat .... phonetically".

Photo of the Italian language symbol from Shutterstock.


James Emil Flege (2012). The role of input in second language (L2) speech learning. Keynote address, VIth International Conference on Native and Non-native Accents of English, Łódź, Poland, December 6-8. (see here).

James Emil Flege, Murray J. Munro & Ian R. A. MacKay (1995). Effects of age of second-language learning on the production of English consonants. Speech Communication, 16, 1-26.

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