Social Question

intrepidium's avatar

How long does it take to lose a foreign accent?

Asked by intrepidium (1220points) July 23rd, 2011

There’s this female professor I know who’s been here in the U.S. for over 25 years, and yet she still speaks with a HEAVY Austrian/ German accent. I’m wondering why that is, since she has no family here aside from her husband who is American Irish. I would’ve thought all those years of living here and teaching (the student population is pretty standard – mix of local and international students, the latter mainly from India, China and Korea).

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20 Answers

poisonedantidote's avatar

In my experience, from seeing Spanish and German friends learning other languages, If you are younger than 10 it takes 5 years to lose, if you are 15 it takes 15 years to lose, and if you are 20 or over you have it for life.

I’m 28, I learned 4 languages before I was 10, and natives tell me (as well as i know) that my accent is identical to a native one when I speak their language. I learned my 5th language when I was about 13, and natives tell me they some times can tell I’m not a native. The native speakers of any other languages I partially know, tell me it’s very obvious I’m not a native, but that my accent is better than average.

jca's avatar

Howard Stern used to make fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger for this reason. Some people never lose it, some lose a good part of it but you can still tell they’re foreign, and then look at professional actors, how they can “lose it” for a movie, act and talk naturally and you would never know. For example, Nicole Kidman.

janbb's avatar

It really varies from person to person. I’ve know English people who have had heavy, heavy regional accents after years in the States; my husband’s has settled into a vague mid-Atlantic kind of sound. I don’t believe it is a conscious thing at all.

Kayak8's avatar

I naturally have a pretty strong southern accent that now creeps out when I am tired. But I have learned to speak like a standard midwestern newscaster. I was about 16 when I started working on it.

amujinx's avatar

My mother has been in the US for 31 years now and still has an accent. However, it’s not a true British accent anymore, when she goes back to the UK to visit, people ask her where she is from since her accent is now partially influenced by an American accent.

marinelife's avatar

Some people never lose their accents. This goes for English speakers speaking foreign languages as well.

filmfann's avatar

I knew a woman who was a Jewish Concentraition Camp Survivor, who still had a very thick accent 25 years later.
I think it depends on the person. When I talk to someone with an accent, somehow I unconsciously begin to speak with that accent. I have no idea why I do this.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

My grandmother is 87 years old and has been here since WWII ended, and she still has a very heavy accent. My grandfather did, as well. In fact, he hardly spoke English at all when he passed away about 13 years ago.

JLeslie's avatar

I sound like I am from NY when I say “coffee” and I have not lived there since I was 9 and English is my first language and I live outside of Memphis, TN. LOL.

I agree with @poisonedantidote pretty much, and also each individual is slightly different of course. My husband started learning English age 4. He first lived in the Us when he was 14 for two years. Then returned for his college education and has lived here ever since. He is 44. He still has some accent, very little. His brother has no accent, but only had spent a few months in the US during junior high on an exhange program, finally moving to the states in his late 30’s. But, his brother is more of a perfectionist, and more worried about being judged, so maybe he tries harder to say it like the natives? Not sure. His sister has a slight accent like my husband.

I know an Austrian woman who moved to the US when she was 17 and she still has a very distinct accent. I have another friend who came to the US at the same age from Panama and she has almost no accent.

JLeslie's avatar

@filmfann That is normal actually. Mimicking the person you are having a conversation with from how they speak, to their gestures, is a way of building rapport, fitting into a group to be accepted, and comes naturally to most people. This is why when they accuse Hillary Clinton of faking an accent when she is in the south, midwest, or northeast, it has to be being said by people who never leave their city limits, because she lived in the midwest for 20 years and Arkansas for 20 years and the northeast for 20 years, so of course she easily adapts to all three accents. I think the public is too hard on Madonna also when it comes to this.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@JLeslie and @filmfann I’m prone to that, also. If I spend a week in New York (I have a handful of good friends in Long Island), everyone notices the change in my speech. It’s not a conscious thing. Again, going back to my grandparents, I do it even more noticeably. I always attributed it to switching between two languages when in my grandparents’ presence, but I think it’s more subconscious than that.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I think some people never lose an accent because their vocal cords and such have muscle memory, it is natural and effortless, because that is the way it was learned. Imagine trying to tell Tiger Woods to come up with a completely different swing. The swing he has, even though tweaked and such, is basically the same he had when he was 5yrs old. It is more muscle memory, he knows when his swing is on or off because of how it feels. If one is young when they leave their native language and embrace another I think they have a better chance of losing it or it being lessen than one who have lived with their language from when they could speak until way into adulthood.

JLeslie's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central kind of agreeing with what you are saying, but with one addition. Accent has a lot to do with how we shape our mouth and use our tongue to make sounds, maybe more than the vocal chords, not sure.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central is that true, or is it a theory? Either way it’s very interesting.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@ANef_is_Enuf @JLeslie I cannot say it is a undisputed fact but I read somewhere that many people can’t shake an accent because their body, lips, tongue, vocal cords, etc has been trained to produce or do certain shapes etc to make the sounds of their language. That is also the reason why a person can know and understand another language but if that language is far from their native one, such as German to Chinese, or English to Spanish you can never, on most cases, do it as well as a native speaker, especially if you have to replicate rolling ‘R’s, umlauts, and such. A non-native speaker’s tongue, lips, vocal cords etc. find it foreign to create. It is something new the non-native speaker has to train their body to do, the native speakers has done all their live so it is easy, unforced, and like second nature.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central interesting. It makes sense.

JLeslie's avatar

@Hypocrisy_Central it’s true it is very hard to earn certain sounds late in life. My in-laws have a hard time pronouncing TH and J like Jet.

intrepidium's avatar

I vaguely recall seeing a recent documentary about 2 women in the UK (I think) who somehow (separately) woke up one day and started speaking with foreign accents. They’d lived in their respective towns/cities all their lives and had never traveled to those countries where their accents were derived. .. their families and colleagues were weirded out and I think one even had to leave her job because she worked in a customer-facing role. Somehow word of their separate cases got around and the medical specialists were able to connect the 2 women and they bonded over their strange ‘ailment’ ... has anyone else seen that documentary?

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

I agree with @poisonedantidote‘s theory. While attending our 25 year high school reunion, it was easy to tell who headed north or west after graduation and who stayed in the south. There are many people in our hometown who have relocated there as adults, and I cannot name one that has picked up the southern drawl, even after living there for 40 years.

I also agree with those that say that it is possible to adopt a different accent. It takes a lot of coaching though.

mattbrowne's avatar

Depends on the age. And talent.

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