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:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

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

The Speech Accent Archive: The Eng­lish Accents of Peo­ple Who Speak 341 Dif­fer­ent Lan­guages

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 (10)
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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?

  • Maria white says:

    Bilin­gual­ism is a great asset for con­cept for­ma­tion in both lan­guages. When you acquire a concept,say a math­e­mat­i­cal one,in Eng­lish lan­guage, there is a trans­fer­ence to the oth­er lan­guage
    which enrich our cog­ni­tion.
    Equal­ly, one becomes meta lin­guis­ti­cal­ly aware because you can see the rela­tion­ship that exist between or among dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

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