2 Kinds of Foreign Accent? What?

Something drew my attention when I was in Japan. Some people I met had a curious accent, something that was not the typical accent of a Japanese person. I had encountered it before, so this is by no means exclusive to Japan, but I had never realized what it meant in terms of language acquisition, or tried to reason why such a thing happened.

Before I get into this any further, let me clarify why I decided to write about accent. People shouldn’t be discriminated or embarrassed based on having an accent. Many of us simply learned a foreign language the way we were told to, and it had the results it had. Even my own accent is not perfect when speaking foreign languages, and neither am I arguing that by following my methods you’ll end up being indistinguishable from a native speaker. This post is not meant to embarrass or criticize anybody. Still, pronunciation is an important part of making ourselves understood by other speakers of the language, and having clearer pronunciation will always be better for communication, and to put less strain on the people listening to us. But the main reason I want to discuss accent is that finding out why accents happen can give us a lot of insight into the process of language acquisition.

So, what is this “curious accent”? You see, the accent of most speakers of a second language lies on a spectrum, going from an accent that is indistinguishable from that of a native speaker, to the strongest accent you can imagine, basically speaking the second language using exclusively the sounds of their mother tongue. Most people lie somewhere in between, with very few people getting close to sounding like a native speaker, and most people ending up with a mixture of the sound systems of the two languages. If you have read my other posts, in particular How to Play a Foreign Language, you will know that I believe that the position where people end up on that spectrum depends on how much listening they do before they begin speaking and reading.

However, some people don’t lie on this line. They have a kind of accent that I can only define as “artificial”, or “forced”. Their accent can’t be explained in terms of the sound system of their first language. We need another explanation for why that happens. In this post I’m going to explain my hypothesis, why it can help us better understand how we learn languages, and how it fits in with the rest of Comprehensible Input theory.

Artificial accent?

You may have met some people that present this phenomenon, or maybe not. I know I have met a few, and it’s very clear to me when one person has it. They sound very different from other people who have the same mother tongue when speaking the same target language. It is even quite possible that the same person may have this kind of artificial accent in one of the languages they can speak but not in another. I myself feel like I may have some of this artificial accent when I speak English, but it’s hard for me to evaluate my own accent objectively. I do also have a hypothesis for how I ended up with it, which I will talk about later on in this post.

How pronunciation is acquired

To understand how some people may end up with this artificial accent, we first have to look at how accent and pronunciation are acquired.

Consider what comes next as my current level of understanding on the topic, based on extensive reading of research, personal experience learning languages, and direct observations of other learners, but also open to being updated and improved:

When we listen to the language we are learning, our brain progressively adds more and more information to our knowledge of the sounds of that language, and gradually builds a mental image. There are a range of sounds that a phoneme can have. There will be differences in pitch, coarseness of the voice, clearness, and many other variables that will be different from speaker to speaker, and our brain needs to pile up a lot of information over time to figure out the whole range of sounds that that specific phoneme can have. Over time, that will build the mental image of the sounds of the language. Babies do this naturally. Since all the information they use to build up this mental image comes from the outside, and mostly from other native speakers, they will grow up sounding like native speakers.

Why accent happens

However, adults can interfere with this natural process. Unlike children, many adults believe that they have to actively try to learn if they want to get good at a language. They do things like practicing speaking, practicing pronouncing individual sounds or words, and practicing reading. If they do that practicing before the mental image of the sounds of the language is completely formed, they will pronounce the sounds out loud or in their head in a way that can never be the same as the ones made by native speakers. Because for them to be the same, their mental image would need to be completely formed already. Therefore, the sounds they hear in their head when they read, or the sounds they make when saying words in the language, must come from somewhere else. The difference between a “natural” and an “artificial” accent is where this information comes from.

Let me explain. Many people are quite laid back about their pronunciation, or don’t want to try to imitate the sounds of the foreign language out of embarrassment. In that case, their brain will do the easiest thing, and resort to using the sounds of their native language when practicing speaking and reading. They already have those sounds anyway! They may even be actively encouraged to use only sounds of their first language, since it may be the only way to pronounce the target language that doesn’t get their classmates laughing at them. The mental image of their first language will then become connected and get mixed with the developing mental image they have of their target language. The words of the foreign language will become tightly connected to the sounds of the first language, and this will end up in the usual accent that people have in a foreign language, which is different depending on their native language. Depending how early and how much speaking and reading they did early on, they will end up on different points along the spectrum that we mentioned before: from speaking using only sounds of their mother tongue, to having a very minimal or even indiscernible foreign accent. Note that this “laziness” or unwillingness is not necessarily a deal breaker, and by delaying speaking and reading they can end up with a desirable really good accent.

Why artificial accent happens

So, if the mentioned “natural” accents, including the desirable minimal accent, happen when people are not concerned about native pronunciation or unwilling to imitate it, you can imagine who ends up with the mentioned “artificial” accent.

Yes! People who are concerned about having good pronunciation, and who actively practice pronouncing words in the foreign language.

If you try pronouncing words in the foreign language before you have a clear mental image of the sounds of the new language, your brain has to use something else, since it doesn’t yet have that mental image and can’t access it. As we mentioned before, babies grow up to become native speakers because all the information they use to build up their mental image comes from the outside. Adults can interfere with that process and end up with a nonnative accent, grammar, and word usage because they can use information that comes from within themselves. In the case of the “natural” foreign accent, the information that the brain uses comes from its own knowledge of the sounds of the first language. In the case of the “artificial” foreign accent, that information comes from the conscious mind.

Yes, that’s the difference. People who end up with an artificial accent are most often very conscientious people who place importance in pronouncing things well. That brings them to use their conscious thinking to try to compensate for their initial lack of a mental image of the sounds of the language. Effectively, by practicing speaking the language (either out loud or in their heads) they’re providing themselves with input.

That input is based on their interpretation of what they hear, or based on explanations of the mouth movements that are required to produce the sounds of the foreign language. Of course, that input is not exactly the same as what they would get from listening to native speakers, because they are not producing it using an acquired mental image like a proficient speaker would. Explicit knowledge of the sounds of the language is necessarily a lot simpler than the implicit knowledge built into a mental image, and it’s ridden with misinterpretations and lack of precision about the exact position of the mouth where the different sounds are produced, of how to transition from one sound to another, and about the rhythm and intonation of the language. So what they end up acquiring is not the same as what a native speaker has.

Again, the effect of this conscious thinking will be mitigated or almost completely eliminated by focusing on listening, and leaving speaking and reading for when the mental image of the sounds of the language is strong enough. This “artificial” accent is not necessarily better or worse than the “natural” one.

Final words

I hope you remember what I said at the beginning of this post. This is a post about how to find a better way to learn languages, and it’s not meant to criticize anybody, and much less the people who have spent lots of time and effort learning a foreign language, no matter what results they got.

The point of this post is not even to argue whether it’s better to have the “natural” foreign accent versus the “artificial” accent, or even argue how much effort should be made to get a better accent. The point is rather that by knowing what the nature of accent is, and learning more about why it happens, we may find that there’s no need to make a compromise and that a better, more understandable pronunciation is achievable without necessarily spending more time to learn the language, and quite possibly with less effort.

 

9 thoughts on “2 Kinds of Foreign Accent? What?

  1. Four months ago I moved to Barcelona and when I arrived I was told that I had a very neutral Madrileño accent “from the movies” which is to say the sort of accent the voice actors who provide the castellano dub to foreign films have. This is because I never really had the chance to speak with anybody before moving here and all my input came from online sources.

    Accents belong to places. They are named after the regions from which they come. In my place of work here in Barcelona there are of course catalanes, but also people from various countries in south and central america, several people from andalucía and one of my roommates is from Galicia. I’m very curious to know what this will do to my accent. If I’m hearing so many different varitions and accents of spanish, I doubt that I’ll pick up just one accent and I’ll end up with pieces from all of them potentially? Or is it more likely that one accent will be a little more dominant than all the rest?

    I’ll never be rid of my english accent when speaking Spanish and will always sound a little foreign but it does make me wonder how I sound to a native speaker. Nowadays many people learn languages online and as such are going to be exposed to far more accents than in times before the internet where immersion meant going to a specific region and exposing yourself to the language there. My best guess would be that learners from the internet could achieve a near “perfect” but general accent, to the extent where you could say they speak perfectly but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess where exactly they come from? I suppose I’ll have my answer after living here for a couple of years.

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    1. My guess is that even if you get exposed to different accents, you’ll end up speaking with the accent and expressions that you mostly relate to, the way your closest friends speak, as long as you get enough input from them.

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  2. On the positive side of not sounding completely native, Ricardo Montalbán had a clear ‘Mexican’ accent when he spoke English, but it was elegant, distinct in speech and ponunciation, and, therefore, made for a beautiful non-native English accent.

    Most important to me, as I learn Spanish, is to strive, regardless of how close my accent gets to sounding native, to afford the listener as much ease as possible toward understanding my speech. Good writing, be it imperfect, should should never cause the reader to work in order to understand (the syntax and structure of) what is being read. A good accent, though not perfect, should offer the same courtesy to the listener.

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  3. Thank you, this is a very interesting topic that i have also pondered deeply. I have a few queries, and i will try to provide examples to highlight my points:

    When we look at language learning overall it is clear that reading is such an advantage in terms of not only improving comprehension but, moreover, higher order thinking, imagination, and so on. The AJATT/ MIA folk suggest that sacrificing this advantage isn’t necessary since what you call the ‘mental image’, is NOT fixed.

    This is what they state:

    ….not only is act of reading inherently easier than listening, but it’s also easier to learn from. It allows for swift word look-ups with pop-up dictionaries and easy Anki card creation through copy/pasting. In contrast, learning from listening usually requires you to correctly hear words and manually look them up.

    Because of these advantages, focusing on reading is a highly effective strategy for rapid improvement. What happens with this strategy is that your reading ability ends up developing past your listening ability, and then that reading ability is subsequently transferred into listening ability.

    When your reading ability develops past your listening ability, catching your listening back up usually isn’t too difficult. The reason for this is that learning to hear a word/structure that you can already read is much easier than learning a new word/structure entirely through listening. What happens is that, as long as you continue to actively and passively listen to the language, any reading ability you have will eventually transfer over to listening ability.

    They are aware of the problems you mention:

    … before your listening abilities are fully developed, it’s impossible to grasp the way a language should sound. This means that, while reading raw text, your subvocalization will inevitably be filled with mispronunciations and unnatural intonation patterns. If you read excessively without listening ability to back it up (in other words, while you have a large listening/reading ability gap), these inaccuracies could lead to you internalize bad habits that will manifest when you eventually start speaking your target language.

    However, and this is the crux of my first point:

    …if your listening ability is constantly improving, then your internal model of how the language sounds is being regularly updated. Due to the constant updating, it’s unlikely that your subvocalized pronunciation would become stagnant enough for ingrained habits to form.

    Source: https://massimmersionapproach.com/table-of-contents/stage-2/mia-stage-2-guide/#listening-vs-reading

    My first point is this – is the ‘mental model’ of the language REALLY as fixed as you suggest? If so, how do we explain that several very high level speakers of foreign language Dashan ( in Chinese), Mike Campbell ( in Chinese), Stu Jay Raj ( in Thai, Chinese ….) Dogen ( in Japanese) all achieved an amazing levels in these languages without long silent periods? In addition, several of them are experts in either IPA/ pitch accent and have used these ‘ conscious’ skills to improve their accent, pronunciation and prosody.

    Maybe there are other factors involved, maybe they are exceptions, however, as a principle, can you say unequivocally that the ‘ mental image’ is fixed? If not, then it is obvious that reading is a tremendous advantage in developing not only better and faster comprehension, but also in accelerating deeper cultural understanding through the literature ( most people read a significant amount in their native tongue from ages 6 through 21…and this shapes their thinking, perception and speech). I’m not saying you are wrong, however, it doesn’t appear to be so clear cut, and their is evidence to suggest otherwise. If the ‘mental image’ isn’t fixed then there is also the question of how much ‘ input’ is needed to correct or reform this image.

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    1. Thanks for your comment AM.
      For now we just don’t have enough data that would indicate how long of a silent period is beneficial, and how long should we postpone reading.
      Our mental image is probably not 100% fixed, but once something has been written there and reinforced, I don’t believe it can really go away (at least in less than 10 years or so). But you can always add to it. If you add an alternative pronunciation or grammar rule, and have that be reinforced more often than the mistaken one you learned before, then that newly learned thing can overpower your old knowledge. That will only happen though if you don’t keep reinforcing the old mistaken knowledge by constantly using it. Then there’s also the issue of identity. If you go live to a foreign country where they also speak your mother tongue but a different dialect, you will surely add that new dialect to your mental image, even if you learned your mother tongue 50 years ago. However, most people won’t use that new part of their mental image because they would feel “fake”, or that they’re not themselves when speaking that way. I believe that for the majority of people, the same happens when you hear yourself speak out loud or you hear yourself reading in your head. That becomes your identity and most people find it hard or are unwilling to stray away from that.

      About the cases of learners that you mention, that actually fits within the hypothesis that I present in this post. Both the “natural accent” and the “artificial accent” are on a gradient that ends at the native speaker level. Learners that are very knowledgeable about language, phonetics, and who are very conscientious, can probably still use conscious thinking to end arbitrarily close to the native speaker level (especially considering that at the beginning they weren’t probably speaking all that much, unless they were using a masochistic aproach like Benny). This approach however isn’t applicable to most learners, who are not as conscientious and as knowledgeable about language, so I don’t recommend this approach to most people. Actually, seeing how self-conscious people get when they watch Dogen’s and Matt’s videos, I can’t avoid thinking that there’s a much easier and less stressful way of learning a language.

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  4. Thank you very much for your response. Forgive my long reply and i hope you can understand where I’m coming from. I think we need to situate everything within its normal context. If we look at the normal course of our lives it is not merely the case of developing a finely tuned linguistic system. For example, a 6 year old child has a perfect linguistic system at their disposal whilst also possessing a world view informed by countless experiences, interactions and stories which shape them. But does anyone take what a child says seriously? Of course not. Why? When we say someone “speaks well” what we are really referring to is the fact that their words ‘carry weight’. The weight of knowledge, experience, education, maturity and so on. While it is important to be understandable, it is no less important to have experience in the culture, ideas, values and community that inform the language. If, as an adult, one wants to take a significant ‘ silent period’, then engage with the culture, then learn a script, then read the literature, then think and write in the language, one is looking at around 10 years of investment. People often speak of the new horizons opened up by learning a language and culture. Very true. However, 10 years investment would also get you two Ph.Ds and perhaps a better career. I make these points merely to highlight that everything is a tradeoff: if you move to a foreign country but haven’t learnt the script because you want a perfect accent, how do you read a menu, go to a bank, read or write an email, read an address? Also, if you don’t speak how to you have genuine interaction. Don’t get me wrong- i do ‘Cross-talk’ and i would recommend it to anyone, but its not normal interaction, its a learning activity. I hope you can see where im going with all this- the linguistics is just one consideration and it must be weighed up against many other factors. For example, many people will never spend more that 1 year abroad- the vast majority. Should they optimise their language output or interact? Should they even bother learning the language…perhaps spending time deepening their knowledge of their native tongue is a perfectly valid response? In a similar vein, Antonio Graceffo wrote this very interesting post: https://brooklynmonk.wordpress.com/2009/12/28/to-alg-or-not-to-alg/

    Whilst i find linguistics very interesting, i think we need to situate current discussions of language acquisition within some sort of wider context. AJATTers boast of spending 10,000 hours on getting ‘ optimal input’ in their bedrooms before ‘optimising’ their ‘output’. Many never go to Japan and nearly all return within a year only to teach others how to ‘optimise’ their learning, flashcards, and virtual life. Later, some spend two years ‘optimising’ their pitch accent so they can have profound interactions with native speaker who will shower them with praise: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fhaovFrXnjE

    Of course, i say this with tongue in cheek, but i do think it points to recent trends that often have a negative underside. I won’t name names but youtube is full of examples. Has your move to Thailand changed your views on the wider theme of “language learning”? How do you see it all fitting together? Perhaps you could write an update on your Thai journey, im sure many would be interested in your insights ( not only regarding language, but also culture etc.). Thanks again.

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    1. Centaintly there are tradeoffs, and if you are living in the country, it’s probably pragmatical to speak the language in the situations that require it or that can help you have a better life in that situation. I do agree with your general premise that you should weigh all factors. I’m just advocating for having an accurate idea of how acquisition works, so that we are better informed about what the tradeoffs actually are, and we can make informed decisions.
      I think the number of 10 years is completely off, though. You’re learning most things about the culture while you’re getting input. You’re learning most things you will need to be able to speak when you listen, and you learn almost everything you’ll need to be able to write when you read.

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    1. I haven’t listened to his new podcast, but I listened to many episodes of Tea With BVP.
      I agree with most of his theoretical arguments, but the way he talks about classroom activities makes me uncertain of how much he is really applying them in the classroom.
      I called once to Tea With BVP, but I’ve never had the chance to have a long conversation with him. I’ve discussed ALG with Stephen Krashen and he said he found it really interesting. He did visit AUA many years ago.

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