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.
© 2011 – 2013, Jennifer Laidlaw. All rights reserved.