Why You Have an Accent When You Speak a Foreign Language

One occasionally hears it insisted that, outside certain culturally distinct regions of the country, Americans “don’t have an accent.” This notion is exposed as nonsense the moment one of those Americans starts speaking a foreign language, sometimes at the very first word. “Hold the palm of your hand up in front of your mouth and say ‘Paris’ in English,” advises the host of the Economist video above. “You’ll feel a little puff of air on your hand. Now, try the same thing again, but try to remove that puff of air, and you’ll get something closer to the French sound.” While this test works best for Americans, native speakers of many languages other than French should feel a difference.

No matter where they’re from, “people find themselves subconsciously adapting words of a foreign language to fit the rules of their own,” combining, emphasizing, and dropping sounds in the manner to which they’ve been accustomed since early childhood: the native Arabic speaker pronounces children as childiren, the Spaniard says he comes from espain, a Frenchman calls Texas’ biggest city yoo-STON.

It’s one thing to master a foreign language’s library of sounds, but quite another to nail its “stress patterns” that dictate which syllables are emphasized. That no syllables are emphasized in Japanese reveals the native stress patterns of its foreign speakers: listen to how clearly the distinctive American English rhythm comes through in, say, the name of the famous novelist ha-RU-ki mu-ra-KA-mi.

Some languages, like Italian and Cantonese, are “syllable timed,” which means that “every syllable has roughly the same duration.” This is quite unlike English, whose “stressed syllables come at roughly regular intervals, and the remainder are less distinctly pronounced.” Non-native English speakers who ignore that aspect of the language will always sound foreign, no matter their level of fluency. Of course, having an accent isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and indeed, we all know individuals who have played it up to great advantage in their personal and professional lives. But as an American living abroad, I do feel a certain responsibility to contradict our reputation for blithe ineptitude outside English. Such an effort must begin with taking any language, whatever its particular set of technical or cultural characteristics, one sound at a time.

Related content:

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What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

A Tour of U.S. Accents: Bostonian, Philadelphese, Gullah Creole & Other Intriguing Dialects

Peter Sellers Presents The Complete Guide To Accents of The British Isles

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A Map Showing How Much Time It Takes to Learn Foreign Languages: From Easiest to Hardest

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (9)
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  • Terry says:

    “expresso”, and “idily”
    why I can always tell an american in Italia…
    WHY CAN’T they pronounce the T in Italy??

  • Dominique says:

    Because a large number of Americans are poorly educated,have never mastered a foreign language let alone their native English. Sadly too because they are lazy linguistically.

  • S says:

    Look at all these blithely ignorant pronouncements on how blithely ignorant Americans are. Honestly, these tired stereotypes are boring as heck. It’s not your responsibility to play cultural ambassador 24/7. And good gravy, there’s nothing personally meritorious about growing up surrounded by multiple languages vs. in a country that spans an entire continent that also happens to speak the global lingua franca — it’s just dumb luck.

    On a more interesting topic: Geoff Lindsay’s YouTube videos are some amazing viewing on topics like these. I never realized how musical the English language actually is. I’ll never think of the line, “Bond, James Bond,” the same way again.

  • Peg says:

    Thank you for pointing that out. Europeans come in contact with other languages more frequently than do many Americans.

  • Joshua says:


    I couldn’t have said it better myself. The truth is, it is widely acceptable to mock Americans relentlessly, ignoring one’s own flaws. And Americans, in a desperate attempt to appear redeemable and likeable to the judgmental ignorance of Europeans, jump on the bandwagon of anti-American sentiment, at their own expense. Just the last comment of this article was completely irrelevant to the subject, but a last-ditch effort to seek validation. As an American living in the Middle East, studying Arabic, I grow tired of these boring stereotypes. And the Italian in the comments can freely escape accusations of xenophobia while making fun of Americans’ accents while the reverse situation would be unthinkable. It’s a highly ironic world.

  • Corinna says:

    Do you think Terry is Italian? I thought either American (Expat) or English.

  • Andy Goss says:

    All languages have their accepted phonetic interpretations. Everybody has an accent, and the vagaries of spelling frequently leave a word and its pronunciation somewhat divergent.

  • Clifford Brazier says:

    Neurological research suggests that babies reared in bilingual/multilingual households use different parts of the brain when communicating in each language. As they grow up, they lose this ability and the dominant language takes over, thus heavily influencing how the others are articulated. “Accents” become inevitable. For more information, please research the pioneering work in Montreal of the Canadian/Anerican neurologist Dr Wilder Graves Penfield.

  • Pete Branscombe says:

    “That no syllables are emphasized in Japanese” is a common claim, but I don’t think it’s true.

    For example, the word はし (hashi) is the same for both bridge and chopsticks, but to say chopsticks you emphasize/stress the first syllable (HAshi), while to say bridge, you stress the second syllable (haSHI). There are lots of other homonyms that are similarly distinguished this way.

    Or is there some technical difference between stressing, emphasizing and changing pitch that I’m not aware of?

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