How does a NATIVE ENGLISH accent FORM?

accents

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As you may all well know by now, the whole concept of a ‘native speaker’ is somewhat strange. I mean honestly there are some native speakers (of which I am one), who I just cannot understand a word that comes out of their mouth. Why? Not just the words used from their particular area of the world, but simply their accent!

 

What actually is an accent?

But an accent really is just the different ways we ‘form’ the words in our mouth. If you listen to different accents, even though they are all saying the same words they are forming them in different ways. This way of forming words was learned by listening to others who do the same.

 

Where do accents come from?

What I do find really interesting though is that these accents don’t usually come from our home or our family. Often you will see an immigrant who speaks with a strong accent or broken English accent, but after having children in their new country, do their children speak with this same accent?  Answer – No!

Accents are formed from the whole environment. This includes all things related to sound and speaking that is absorbed into our brains right from an early age. So these things will include not just our parents talking to us, but our teachers, the television, the music we listen to, our neighbours, our friends, our classmates, our workmates, the bus driver….you name it, they all help us form our accents.

Once we absorb all these different sounds, we form our own accent from this. These accents are usually formed based on what we unconsciously think everyone around us will understand. That is why the accents of say Northern England often sound similar because they talk to each other more than they talk to people from other parts of the world.

 

Can we change our accent?

Yes. We can change or lose our accent too! I myself was born in New Zealand and so of course had a kiwi accent for a long time, then I moved away and pretty much for the last 20 years I have been mixing with non-New Zealanders and as a result I have lost a lot (though not all) of my accent. Many people now say I have an ‘international’ accent. Whether that is true or not I’m not sure.

 

Can you choose your accent?

Some people can, particularly if you live in a non-English country. I have some relatives who live in Norway. They speak fluent Norwegian of course, but also fluent English. I was surprised when I first met them that their accent was very American. I asked them how did they do that because they have no American friends, and they said that they watched a lot of American movies and listened to a lot of American songs…because they liked the American  accent.  Interesting.

What do you think?

 

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8 thoughts on “How does a NATIVE ENGLISH accent FORM?

  1. I think one can change one’s accent. It depends of who you hang out with when you start learning the language. You pick up on the way people around you speak if that’s what you want.

  2. For my English, I don’t know if I could choose it without compromising being genuine (like putting something on) unless of course I moved to another anglophone country like UK or NZ. But my Spanish accent (still pretty gringo) I need to decide if I’m going to keep the Porteño Argentinean accent I’ve been using or switch to a more neutral accent. I feel because it is my second language, I have some more choice over it.

  3. Hi Aiyshah, I’m from the North of England and have toned my accent down since moving to France and becoming an English teacher. When I speak to my family and friends on Skype I slip right back into my northernisms. I suppose they’re just lying dormant in the meantime.

    A question I’d like to ask is, do you think it’s important for ESL learners to speak with a native English accent? A small number of my students are concerned about this and feel bad about themselves for speaking with a French lilt. In my opinion obtaining an accent is absolutely not a priority. Instead, I tend to focus on correct pronunciation (we look at both British and American sounds) and being generally comprehensible. Besides, in England we are in love with the French accent, what a pity to give that up!

    • Hi Kate,

      This is a really good question. I can only speak from the experience of what our students want (and every student group is different). For some students it’s imperative the accent is ‘British’ or ‘American’, but for others, it’s just about getting the English. For nationalities who have a very strong oral culture the accent is important, (e.g. Arab), but for those cultures that are very visual (e.g. Vietnam) it is not.

      My answer is that there are all kinds of native English accents (as you say), within England alone there are so many, and some I can’t even understand! Saying that I am now of the thinking that there is such a thing called the ‘international native English accent’. This is the kind of accent that is emerging internationally. I would say it’s origin is usually British but has a slight ‘local lilt’. So what your students are picking up, is in fact the new ‘international English accent’ but with a French lilt. But the lilt shouldn’t be too strong. Maybe you might be able to pick it up when you hear the student speaks, but generally most wouldn’t notice it too much.

      We pick up accents predominantly from what we hear around us, and if your students are already working with French people or have a lot to do with them, their accent will probably have a French lilt.

      In Malaysia at our Language Centre our students are all international and have nothing to do with locals generally, so the only accent they they pick up is from our teachers who are native speakers (from around the world e.g. Australia, NZ, UK, Ireland, etc). So they tend to come out with quite an international accent.

      This is an interesting point and I think I will do a blog post on it…thanks for reminding me.

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