Bilinguals and accents

Should you be able to speak a language without an accent to call yourself bilingual? Can you acquire a native-like accent in a language you learn later in life? Do others guess where your accent is from? Does it really matter? Do you care?

I have recently discussed accents with a few different people, some of them bilinguals, others monolinguals and some monolinguals who speak more than one language. A monolingual who knows and uses two languages? Yes, exactly, this is how they have defined themselves. When I asked why they do not say they are bilinguals, the answer was “I am not fluent” or “I have an accent when I speak the other language”.

In my mind, these people definitely are bilinguals: you do not have to be fully fluent, and you certainly do not have to speak your other language(s) accent-free to call yourself a bilingual. I subscribe to Professor Grosjean’s definition which is “Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives” – which makes no mention of full fluency nor accent.

On average, children who acquire a language before the age of about seven end up speaking the language with a native-like accent. If you learn a language after this age, it depends very much on how much time you spend in the particular environment and on your own ability to pick up the language specific sounds that make you sound like a native speaker. Individuals are different, and some people have an excellent skill in quickly picking up accents, while others struggle more. It is definitely possible to achieve a native-like accent later in life, but you would probably need a voice coach and definitely a lot of commitment and time to get there.

For me it is an admirable goal to learn a language that well that a native will think that you are also a native speaker of the language, and I take my virtual hat off for anyone who does, or even attempts it. Some people may also need this for their job or for some other specific reason, such as the wish to fully blend in the community they live in. All very valid reasons!

If the definition of a bilingual were to include ‘accent-free’ I would probably have to reclassify myself as a monolingual – I definitely have an accent in most languages I speak, in some of the languages the accent might be only noticeable to native speakers, but in others – like my spoken English – it is instantly recognisable. The accents are part of my bilingual identity, and I am fine with this. It also does not annoy me when others ask where I come from – many a discussion has evolved from the neutral start of “Lovely weather today” to something much more interesting once the other person notices my accent and wants to know where it comes from. I found it hilarious when a delivery man once asked me to repeat my name just because he wanted to hear it again in my accent – not because he did not understand it 🙂 If you are an adult bilingual, would you rather people not asked where your accent is from? Do you mind the question?

I find it actually quite funny when people start guessing where my accent is from, especially when the discussion is over the phone and the other person does not see me. ‘Dutch’ is probably the incorrect guess I have heard the most, others are ‘German’ and the more or less correct ‘Scandinavian’‘South African’ was a surprise to me first time I heard it, but it makes sense with the close connection to ‘Dutch’. Though I do not mind people noticing my accent as not being a native one, I do remember once feeling quite proud to be asked about it: I had been studying in Germany for about six months and someone wanted to know which part of northern Germany I came from. Once I was mightily impressed by someone from the US, who I spoke to for the very first time, and he guessed my place of birth within a 100 km radius! Turns out he had spent two years in the neighbouring town – the world is small.

Whatever your attitude to your own or someone else’s accent is, I think the following quote is one that everyone should keep in mind:

“Show respect to those who speak with an accent, they probably know one more language than you do!”

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  1. Arno Brevoort

    I speak English daily — to such an extend that my native Dutch is getting rusty. I’m sure I’ve got an accent in my English. This stopped bothering me when I realized that there’s no such thing as “pure” English anyway, as just about *any* English speaker has some sort of accent. After you’ve been in the UK for a while you can place the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, London, North or South, Midlands, and many more accents — no one speaks without an accent, even those who’d be considered “native” speakers!

    • bob

      I totally agree with you, Arno! I find accents very fascinating – and there are so many different ones in each language. I remember once when one of my native English friends being told off by a person from Texas – apparently my friend’s English accent was very difficult to understand 🙂

  2. Paprika

    Hello Rita,

    It’s been a while since I commented here… I’ve been super busy but, I have read all the posts and newsletters that get by e-mail.
    I loved this post, that’s why I couldn’t resist to tell you here on your blog!
    I´ve known people, myself included, that are really worried about accent, but I think in the end what we really want and seek is to be able to communicate our feelings and thoughts in an specific language.
    I will remember your words next time I feel worried about accents: “Show respect to those who speak with an accent, they probably know one more language than you do!”

    Thank you for your wonderful blog!

    • Rita

      Happy to hear from you again and thank you for reading and for your kind comment! You are right, language is first and foremost about communication 🙂

  3. Nick

    When it comes to basic communication, accents absolutely do not matter. However, there is certainly much in the way of identity and social norms that does. Having a strong southern drawl in English can bring up assumptions about identity and education or just sound strange coming from a non-native. I used to know an older Vietnamese gentlemen that spoke like a California surfer because he learned all his English from back-packing tourists. Very strange. So, if you just want to communicate, don’t worry about accent because accent certainly doesn’t define a strong speaker. However, it is worth understanding different uses of accents and what may be appropriate in one situation or another if you want to present a certain image.



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