Saturday, April 30th, 2011

Perfect Bilingualism: Does it Exist?

Raising-bilingual-children/mninni -

If you have ever lived in a foreign country where you speak the language as well as its inhabitants, you’ll know how frustrating it is for someone to complement you on your charming accent.
You might consider yourself completely bilingual, but there’s that little accent that people keep remarking on. Or you might be bringing up bilingual or multilingual children and notice that they have a slight accent in what you consider to be their mother tongue. They might even have an accent in both their languages.
It is certainly nothing to worry about and, in fact, is perfectly normal.
Recent research shows that most bilingual speakers, although there may be exceptions, have an accent in one of their languages, or even in both.
“It’s very difficult to find bilingual speakers without an accent,” said Ranka Bijeljac-Babic, a psycholinguistic and assistant professor at University of Paris-Descartes, at a recent talk on bilingualism held in Paris.
What is important to remember is that being able to speak a language without an accent is not a prerequisite to being bilingual, say the experts.
“Having an accent doesn’t mean that one is less bilingual,” she told an audience of parents with bilingual or multilingual children.
Children who speak two languages can also be heavily influenced by either language, particularly when they are just learning to speak.
For example, Bijeljac-Babic did a study on young bilingual children in France, who spoke both English and French and recorded them speaking words in both languages. She also tested monolingual children and found that both sets of children pronounced the words differently.
English speakers tend to stress the first part of a word while French speakers the end, and in the study, she found that the bilingual children would stress the first part of word in French and vice versa in the other language.
Bijeljac-Babic also said that language accent is something that is constantly evolving and can depend very much on how much time a child might spend in countries where their languages are spoken.
For example, I’m bringing my children up in France speaking English and French. If they are schooled in France and live the rest of their life in France, there’s probably more of a chance that they will speak English with a French accent, however slight it might be, even though English is their mother tongue. However, if they come to live or study in Britain, their accent might start becoming more British.
I’ve already noticed some interesting changes with my son’s speech. He is almost seven and just before he started speaking, a French friend of mine started recognising French words in the sounds he was making.

“But he’s saying them with a British accent,” she told me. When he speaks French now, he certainly sounds very French, but tends to pronounce some English words with a French accent, such as this and that. He pronounces it as “zis” and “zat.”
Accent can also depend on the age of the person and when they acquired the second language. For instance, a study done on native Spanish and Chinese speakers in the United States showed that accent was stronger depending on when the person arrived in the States. Many languages do not have equivalent sounds and that, too, can influence how much of an accent a person might have in another language.
Sense of Failure

Susan Freis, a sociolinguist, remarked that parents often feel failure if their bilingual children have an accent in one or both of their languages because people expect their kids to have perfect accents in both languages.

“The idea of being perfectly bilingual comes from monolinguals,” she said.
She noted that accent can be very subjective, depending on who we are speaking to, with some people more sensitive to hearing accents than not.
If you think of it, we all have accents, whether we come from the United States, Thailand or Spain, and within our own countries we have regional accents. Somebody from Texas speaks very differently from a New Yorker. An inhabitant of the south of France speaks totally differently from a Parisian.
An accent tells other people a lot about us, like where we come from, and it is ever changing. My own accent in my mother tongue has changed many a time. It changed from a Scottish accent into more of an English accent after spending time in London, then became more American after living in the United States. The funny thing is that it has reverted back to somewhat of a Scottish accent since I make several visits a year back to Scotland now with my children.
Maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about having an accent in a foreign language—it can help tell people something about us. Most important to remember is that perfect bilingual does not really exist.

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Jennifer Laidlaw is a freelance journalist who lives in Paris. She has traveled the globe working as a reporter for news agencies Dow Jones and Reuters and has learned various different languages along the way. She is now living a truly multilingual and multicultural experience, as married to a Frenchman, she is bringing up her two small children to speak English and French in France.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsJan Petersen   |  Sunday, 01 May 2011 at 1:31 pm

    When I read the following passage:

    “The funny thing is that it has reverted back to somewhat of a Scottish accent since I make several visits a year back to Scotland now with my children.”

    the reading voice in my head changed to Kevin Bridges immediately. Even now that I am re-reading it, it is with that voice. I had never realised that it was his voice I used for Scottish accent. Weird but funny 🙂

  2. Commentslaura   |  Sunday, 11 September 2011 at 10:54 pm

    My mom tells the story of taking a college class from a linguist, she asked one question & the professor was able to pinpoint her as being from Southern Nevada, not Las Vegas. My sister & I both went through speech therapy in elementary school; sometimes people think she or my dad are from southeast Europe. When my dad served in Germany, he says Germans thought his accent sounded British rather than American. We weren’t raised bilingual, but my parents sometimes spoke German in the home, especially singing. I took a year of German in college, then I went to Germany for an internship. My dad & my German professor had both lived in the Munich area, and even though my internship was in Koeln, all the Germans I worked with were Bavarians. By the time I finished my internship, my (Bavarian) German was pretty good. Then I went to Berlin, & couldn’t understand ANYTHING. My husband was raised in Texas until he was 10. Now he normally speaks w/ the Intermountain West accent I’m used to thinking of as normal, but whenever he listens to the Blue Collar Comedy Club, he starts talking Southern again.

  3. CommentsLeandro   |  Sunday, 15 April 2012 at 1:54 pm

    I’m argentinian and I’m sort of obsessed by perfect bilingualism. I work every day to get rid of any trace of foreign accent when speaking english. The funny thing is that I don’t have a spanish accent when doing so. People can’t tell where I’m from but most of the times they guess saxon or scandinavian nationalities. For me it’s quite a difficult task because I live in Buenos Aires. I’m trying to raise my daughter bilingual, I only speak english with her at home and I make her see cartoons in english. She’s three and she understand english perfectly well, but she doesn’t want to speak it or just says a few words to me. Sometimes I find her singing songs in english in her bedroom but she doesn’t do it in front of other people, at least, not often. I believe in perfect biligualism, because there are examples: Viggo Mortensen speaks spanish as a perfect Porteño (citizen of Buenos Aires) and English as a perfect american (at least that’s what I’ve read and been told). Gwyneth Paltrow has a perfect spanish accent when speaking spanish but you can tell because she makes some little grammar mistakes. Back to Mortensen, I know he speaks three or four languages fluently. He also can do different accents as well in english as in spanish.

  4. CommentsEvelyn   |  Friday, 20 April 2012 at 12:31 pm

    My daughter was born in Spain, I’m Irish and her father is a Spanish speaking Moroccan. She learned English through me (I have a very distinctive Dublin accent), she speaks English with an American accent. I call her my Disney Channel daughter, she calls me Mom and uses American idioms which I would never use. Her Spanish is really good, although she sometimes sounds like a foreigner speaking Spanish, however when she had a Spanish national teaching her English in her Spanish school (impossible to take her out of a class that was way below her English level), she imitated her Spanish teacher speaking English with a Spanish accent. All really hilarious, but in the end I have a bilingual daughter who is now learning Irish!!!

  5. CommentsMatthew   |  Tuesday, 07 May 2013 at 6:55 pm

    My experience is different. My grandmother only ever spoke German and taught me to read and write in German as well. I also learned farsi from close family friends because of my immersion abilities at that age. I can discuss a variety of interests in all 3 languages as well as write, spell and execute the grammar rules perfectly. The thing is, I speak perfect German in Germany but terrible English and vice versa (unless I am speaking with a Native). I have never been to Iran so I can’t account for that but in all 3 of these languages, I sound like the regions that the people I learned from came from (Munich, Tehran). Now, later in life, I learned Spanish, French and Italian and I have a German accent with those 3 languages. I am proficient to write and translate Spanish but I haven’t lived in Spain, Italy or France or visited long enough to absorb it. I am an interpreter but although I CAN in German, I tend to get all of my work interpreting Farsi. I agree with the cultural impact on how one language overlaps to one another, at least in the 3 that I am fluent in. My English tends to be much more long winded and explicit like German is as a language and my Farsi has a tone to it (tone is important) that is very cautious and overly respectful, due to history. My brother couldn’t pick up languages and is barely literate in the English language so I believe some kids really don’t have the ability as others.

  6. CommentsHow to Achieve Spanish Fluency and Find Your Spanish Voice   |  Sunday, 24 May 2015 at 6:12 pm

    […] doesn’t mean to be a perfect bilingual. In fact, that doesn’t really exist. Research has unveiled that even children exposed to two different languages from a young age will […]

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