What is an accent and can I get rid of it?

What is an accent

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Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role in Hercules in New York was remembered by cineastes as ‘probably the worst English in film history’. Anyone who has ever seen – or rather heard – the original version of the film knows exactly why. The future governor of California can’t help but infuse his role as Hercules with the broadest Austrian accent. As funny as it sounds, it must have taken Arnie quite a bit of practice to bring his English pronunciation up to his current level.

Accent. What is that actually?

An accent is the way you pronounce a particular language. First encouraging message for language learners: Everyone is likely to have an accent in someone else’s ears. Everyone has their own peculiarities when speaking, and one’s accent is not always the same. For example, you may speak very differently at work than you do among friends or when visiting family.

There are very different accents in German-speaking countries: Someone in Hamburg sounds different from someone in Dresden or someone in Stuttgart. Someone from Austria also sounds very different from someone from Germany, even though it’s the same language. In the end, standard language is also just something that was agreed upon at some point and that you now hear on the news.

The other type of accent is the one that occurs when a person learns a foreign language. It can be difficult to produce sounds that do not exist in one’s own language. Often, people then try to replace the sounds they don’t know with sounds they do know. And you end up with a sometimes lighter, sometimes stronger accent, depending on how different the sounds are from each other.

Why do I have such difficulty with some sounds?

To understand why adults often have a hard time pronouncing foreign language words and phrases, we need to look at how humans learn language as babies. Indeed, at birth, each individual usually has the same prerequisites and abilities that enable one to learn to speak. However, even before birth, the new creature begins to fine-tune its own hearing to the sounds of its parents’ speech. There are experiments from which it can be concluded that a newborn baby can already distinguish between the sounds of the language or languages of the parents and those of other languages. At the age of 12 months, the young person has already become completely accustomed to the sounds of the language(s) surrounding him.

But what does ‘accustomed’ mean and why is that so? It means, simply put, that when we hear all the different ways of pronouncing a particular sound, they are unconsciously ‘grouped together’ and perceived as a particular sound belonging to a particular word. The stringing together of sounds is then interpreted as a word that has a particular meaning. Humans thus learn to understand the word language, even if the smallest but subtlest deviations can occur depending on the speaker. Thus, one can roll the R sound while another does not, and still both are understood.

This generalization helps to understand one’s own language. At the same time, however, it makes one insensitive to sounds that one does not know from one’s own language, the distinction of which becomes increasingly difficult with increasing age. An example of this are the L and R sounds for speakers of Japanese. This Asian language realizes the R sound differently than in German or English, so that depending on the phonetic environment, it sounds more like the L sound we know. However, the two sounds make no difference in meaning in Japanese, so even adult speakers of foreign languages tend to confuse the sounds.

In addition to the listener side, there is the speaker side: sound production works with muscle memory. Thus, the entire speech apparatus is trimmed to pronounce the sounds in the familiar version. All the muscles involved in sound production are thus unconsciously trained to pronounce the familiar sounds without much awareness. The older the person, the more this sequence of subtle movements of the oral cavity and the tongue is consolidated.

Therefore, individuals who begin learning a new language later in life have more difficulty pronouncing sounds that differ from the way they are articulated in their own language.

Can I still get rid of my accent as an adult?

Simply put, yes and no. In general, studies show that it can be very difficult for adult language learners to completely train away their accent. But the question is also whether this is necessary at all. Very few people manage to achieve this goal. However, with a little patience and support, anyone can achieve a better or more easily understandable pronunciation through targeted training and activation of the speech muscles. Speech therapists have been offering accent reduction training for years. Actors and singers, for example, often train their accent with specially trained speech therapists. 

Just think of all the Hollywood stars in the US who adopt a British accent for selected films, or Korean or Estonian singers who sing Italian operas as if they had grown up with Italian. Although some of them may not know much Italian at all, and are simply familiar with the sounds of Italian. With sylby, you bring your personal speech training home and define your own goals. In our course offer you will find detailed video tutorials for each exercise, which will help you train your pronunciation and give you the necessary know how. As soon as the app is launched, you can try it out right away with our free trial version

Curious now? Download the app and try sylby for yourself!
Kristin Stöcker
Kristin Stöcker
Blogger, Linguist & Data Analyst at sylby