General Question

sferik's avatar

Around what age will children retain the accent of their mother tongue?

Asked by sferik (6072 points ) September 13th, 2008

Let’s say I want my children to have a British accent but I want to raise them in America. How many years would I need to keep them in England?

Is having an accent a conscious decision or does it become ingrained at some point?

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15 Answers

Nimis's avatar

I think its a conscious decision. (At least for some people.) My friend who was born in the UK, grew up (grade school, high school, college) here in the states and now lives and works in the UK switches it on and off…depending on who he’s talking to. Or rather, he turns it up or down. It’s always kind of sort of there…but when he’s here, barely.

gailcalled's avatar

And I grew up with someone in a suburb of NYC. After his tour of military duty (Korean War) he married a Brit and stayed. He now sounds authentically uppercrust English.

Some people have good ears for accents, if they are in their mother tongue; (Listen to Hugh Laurie, for example, or Meryl Streep).

Nimis's avatar

I think it also has to do with adjusting to the people you’re around. I was in Germany for four months, but started picking up a British lilt to some words. (I wouldn’t exactly call it accent.) There were so many kids from the UK staying at my hostel! I think I shook the habit after a month or so. But it’s been several years and sometimes one will just pop out unintentionally.

nina's avatar

The rule of thumb (corrected for individual differences) is puberty. It has been proven time and again in immigrant children. Interestingly, if their parents speak their accented
English to them, they could pick up some of that – but it does disappear later in life as the outside influences start playing more of a part. We came to this country when my son was 3.5. He forgot his Russian promptly, but people did pick up a trace of accent in his speech for a while.

Tantigirl's avatar

I saw a TV documentary where there was an Australian man who is a linguistics expert. He spoke at least 22 different languages (not including dialects), and he said that he spoke 7 languages by the time he was 10 years old. He said that after the age of thirteen it is hard to learn to speak another language without an accent due to the hardening of the pallet. His name was Dr Stephen Wurm, I think he died around 2001. Very clever man.

On another note, we’re Australians living just outside of Boston, we’ve been here since my daughter was 7 years old, she is now 14. She doesn’t have an aussie accent anymore. On the odd occasion she may say a word or two with an accent, otherwise she sounds like an American kid. The kids at her school who haven’t known her since we moved here, don’t believe she is Australian until they hear me speak.

wildflower's avatar

From what I’ve seen and I know I read some theories about this, but the references escape me right now, children learn languages very easily and are easily influenced with things like accents – I suspect if a child was to move country before starting primary school, they will lose the accent of the country they moved from.
If you wait until the child’s been in school for a few years, they’ve probably been so heavily influenced by the schooling and their surrounding that it would take a lot to change the accent they’ve developed.

My husband’s parents both have Irish accents, but because my husband was born and raised in the UK, he has a London accent – even after living in Ireland for 8 years now (he was mid 20’s when he moved).

nina's avatar

@Tantigirl. Such a great answer – but it is ‘palate’ and other parts of articulatory apparatus that lose their malleability and ‘harden’

Tantigirl's avatar

Ah, sorry, spelling mistake there.

pathfinder's avatar

I can just guess.So by my deducation that basicly ten years.The brain of the children is learnfull.So ten years…..........mh….....

gailcalled's avatar

ah, Path; you’re getting lazy. You used to write “yust.” Maybe time for a new hobby?

Fieryspoon's avatar

My accent changes when I’m around my Australian relatives, and my annunciation is vastly improved for a number of weeks after leaving them.

Another half US/half Australian friend I had growing up in the US grew up with an Australian accent. I didn’t. I think it depends a lot on the kid.

jackfright's avatar

it really depends on your children, and how much time they spend in england. i would recommend you send them to boarding school there until they’re about 15 – 17. which should allow the accent to become their ‘default’ but unless they make a conscious decision to maintain it, it will likely slip gradually.

i’ve spent most of my life traveling (and still do), so i have an accent that’s a bit of a mixture of british and australian. i try to keep it as neutral as possible by deliberately not using words/habits overly associated to either. americans often ask if i grew up in the uk, and brits sometimes think i sound a little american.

accents can be tricky, i have friends who can ‘switch’ between them at will, but i have difficulty doing that. i tend i adapt to who i’m talking to subconsciously.

JLeslie's avatar

I was born in Washington DC, my parents were born in NY, I went to college in MI. I now live in the south. When my parents visit I sound like a NYer. When in MI I emphasize my “ou’s” a little more. If you spend enough time emersed in a language or accent you generally start to pick it up, some people more than others. And you kind of switch it on and off without even noticing sometimes. As a side note—this is something that bothered me when Hillary Clinton was criticized for speaking with an accent depending on what part of the country she was in. She grew up in the midwest almost her whole life, studied in the northeast, and lived for years in Arkansas, and then later again in the NE. She did what most people do, revert to the accent of the people she is with at the time, all of those accents are geniune to her.

I do agree that at a certain age it is harder to develop or enunciate certain sounds within a language. My in-laws cannot create the correct sound for TH, probably never will, it does not exist in their mother tongue.

johanna's avatar

Linguists say that at age 13 kids ability to snap up a language starts to wane. Before that they do not need to study but simply pick it up. The older they get the harder it is.

JLeslie's avatar

About learning a language. When you are very young words are repeated to you over and over again. “this is the table. Table.” People take time to point and say it three times etc. They wait for you to repeat the word. If as an adult someone spent that much time talking to you over and over again like that you would probably get the basics of the language faster than studying in a book. I think this is part of the reason very young children learn faster than a high school student in class, along with the research they have done on the brain. This is why total emersion works. You see words and hear the language constantly, you are bombarded.

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