What exactly does it mean to have an accent?
The term “accent” simply refers to the way an individual (and related groups of individuals) or communities produce sounds when communicating through structured language. To speak is to have an accent. But what causes you to have the one you have?
The human individual has to learn to communicate by following a certain model of speech from those around them, family and immediate community, and gradually a wider range of natural and chosen contacts.
What You Hear
Thus “accents” are associated with social groups, economic levels, geographical areas and thus lineages and cultures. An individual and related social, geographical, economic or educational community of people will learn to speak in a certain way.
As the initial form of speech is developed, the mind and muscles of speech discard unneeded sounds and configurations. Your brain forms connections, neural channels and pattern. Thus language actually shapes the way you think.
The established patterns of language and the related patterns of thinking and handling information are learned at a pre-conscious level. Speech patterns and related cognitive control are developed before human memory is established in the individual.
By the time a child is 5-6 years old, their speech patterns, including grammar and speech necessary for every encounter and social need, is established. For linguistic purposes, a 6-year-old is considered an “adult” in language. What is added in formal learning are refinements and specific vocabulary and structural skill.
When an individual needs to learn a second language, the established pronunciation patterns of the original (mother tongue, native language) interfere with the expected patterns in the target language. This is why the speech of a certain community in a second language is notably related to the whole community of speakers of that original language.
Thus in French, we can identify an American accent, an English accent, a Japanese accent, etc. This simply refers to the identifiable phonetic and intonation patterns of the person’s native language that interfere with the expected patterns of speech in the new target language.
Various individuals have different inherent neurological skills, motivation or other sensitivities that lead to different levels of skill in developing a native-sounding accent in the second language.
Individuals who grow up around two or more languages retain more of that natural original discrimination that enables infants to originally learn any language into which we are born. These skills can be regained to some degree by simulating those same processes in learning approaches in a new target language community.
How can you overcome an accent?
Extensive practice, development of good listening skills, and immersion over a long period in a community of the target language. Some individuals never overcome their accents. This is due to individual neural and cognitive abilities, and the variety of previous experience that specific individual has had.
People who have had trouble communicating well in their native language, like English, will likely have similar trouble becoming highly fluent in their target language.
Motivation and Models
Motivation, however, is a great factor, and I have known individuals who are better in fluency, usage and pronunciation in their second language than in their first.
No one, however, can learn or become superior in a second language if they are not around native speakers on which to model. The learner must hear and follow the examples of the host community. This applies even to another dialect of one’s own language.
In a dialect of one’s own language, however, there are often social disincentives against learning to speak like the local dialect, as this is often seen as pretentious, or mocking. But most people naturally adapt without being aware of it.
A Texan I knew once, for instance, had taken graduate study, lived and worked in England. When she was back home in Dallas, people would note her somewhat funny accent. It was not quite British, but it had a British cast to her Dallas friends. Her speech exhibited some common characteristics of British forms of speech (which are many and varied in themselves!).
When discussing this phenomenon with us, she commented that her British friends and colleagues still referred to her American or Texan accent! Which was hardly discernible to her Texas family and friends!
Ironically, speakers of some dialects make fun of speakers of other dialects for speaking that way, yet when they try to speak the preferred way, they still make fun of them, saying they are being pretentious! This is especially a problem in upper class England. Fortunately, it seems this pattern is diminishing.
My correspondent next asked a surprising, and at first puzzling, question.
Are people born with accents?
I think my explanation above covers that. The term “accent” simply refers to the way any individual or community of individuals enunciates their speech. No one is born with language, thus no one can be born with an accent.
An accent is acquired in learning the home language, based on the model the child hears and processes through the inborn learning faculty humans are born with. (Linguist Noam Chomsky called this ability the “Language Acquisition Device” or LAD.)
Every human learns the form of language they hear in the family and community of their infancy. Sometimes they are around two languages, but children who learn two languages simultaneously still learn the two models perfectly, since each is based in a different set of individuals or events in a specific community related to that language. For instance, my first son, born in Kenya, was hearing and communicating in English, Swahili and Kikuyu by the time he was three.
What exactly is a dialect?
The term “dialect’ is a non-exact general term for an understandable variation of a broader speech that has other variations. The term “dialect’ is equivalent to the other general terms “speech variety’ and “speech form.” All human speech is a range of variations along a continuum. Some varieties are close enough to be more or less mutually intelligible. They may be referred to as dialects of one language.
Note that neither "language" nor "dialect" is a technical, defined term. They are both only general working terms, and make sense only in reference to each other as certain distinctions are observed or needed between different human forms of speech.
So the speech of any individual or community may be referred to as their “language.” We cannot say some people speak languages and some speak dialects.
Everyone speaks a language – and they speak a dialect, a specific form of a language. Specifically the term for the speech of an individual is idiolect – self-speech.
But in comparison to other speech forms, it may be observed that it is similar to other speech forms that can all understand each other, thus they may be called “dialects” of a broader language.
Like the different dialects of English. Or the different forms of Swahili we spoke in East Africa. There are 14 mother-tongue dialects, plus non-mother-tongue pidgins.
A grouping of mutually-intelligible, or mutually-understandable, speech forms may have a “natural” name in the community or not. Linguists may need to choose a formal name to refer to the groupings of speech they perceive.
For instance, there are 57 distinct forms of Zapotec speech (Mexico) that are not mutually intelligible. All these language forms are referred to by their speakers simply as Zapotec. To classify or discuss the different dialects, they need to use a specific name, maybe by the village where that dialect is spoken.
Formal divisions for educational or classification purposes are always artificial to a greater or lesser degree. There are almost 7000 “languages” in the world, by formal classification. Varieties that are in some way identifiable as different and in some way related to one or more of these “languages” are classified as “dialects” of those languages.
The term “language” and “dialect” are simply working terms that are totally relative. In relation to language and dialect, the term dialect refers to one among several varieties of a “language.” Thus we can refer to English as a “language.” All the forms of speech called "English" can be called dialects of English.
Politically and culturally, there are several forms of speech called English that are not fully intelligible to other “dialects” of English. But along the continuum the varieties of speech share cultural and geographical or political affinities and relate to other varieties of speech that are more broadly intelligible.
There are fewer dialects of English now than there were at the time of settlement of the American colonies. And the various national or standard dialects of English are more similar now than the varieties of English in England in the 1600s.
Since the time of the American Revolution, the language in the United Kingdom and the North American domains have grown more similar. Communication is a critical factor in this phenomenon.
Accent and Dialect
In general, for English and many other formal or somewhat artificial “languages,” people commonly use the term "dialect" for basically what you would call an "accent." For example, a Jersey accent, a Boston accent.
There are about 10 or 12 mostly geographical American dialects, but they are growing closer and closer together, more and more alike in the last 75 years, merging into a more general speech. Similarly the broad families of European speech, like French and Spanish.
In France itself, there are many totally different languages, as well as many varieties of French. In France, like North America, most of the old distinctions are fading as more speakers have adapted over the last three generations to a more standard or central formal speech.
Related but not mutually intelligible languages in France are Provençal, the group of Franco-Italian languages or dialects, neighboring Rhaeto-Romansch dialects mostly in Switzerland, but along the French-Swiss border, and several other forms of speech, related to old Latin.
Across northern and central Spain, there is a whole range of language with a string of related local dialects among them. On the bordering dialects, across the formal “languages” they may be formally assigned to, these dialects vary from being somewhat to highly mutually intelligible.
These might be dialects of Portuguese and Galician; Aragonese and Leonese, Castilian with various others; and the more different Catalan, which is similar to Corsican and northern Italian and Provençal.
These are just common broad examples.
Accents - Developing and Changing Them
Approaches to Language: Models
Dialects, Languages and Ethnicity
Dialects, Peoples and Cultural Change
How Words Develop Multiple Meanings: How Word Meanings are Negotiated
Language and Cultural Worldview
Language and Identity
Language as Worldview Window
Mastering the Models
Principles and Techniques of Language Learning
Shared Significant Experiences
Tunes and Tones: Singing the Language
Vernaculars, Pidgins, Creoles And Lingua Francas
What Makes a Dialect a Dialect?
Why do People Have Accents?
Language Acquisition Device – Chomsky
Language Acquisition Device – Language Theory
Zapotec speech – Ethnologue
Linguist Noam Chomsky
Many 'change accent to get ahead'
Original comments first written in an email message 3 May 2011
Developed 6 July 2011, finalized and posted 9 July 2011
Last edited 10 January 2013
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.