Saturday 17 September 2011

Multilingual accents

When you’ve made a decision to start learning a new language, and you’ve started putting your good intentions into practice, chances are that someone (you yourself included) will come to find fault with your accent in that language. Chances are also that whoever finds fault will also find swift solace in the accepted knowledge that you are simply being a typical language learner.

It could be, for example, that you are past your linguistic prime, so it is only natural that you are unable to learn a new language properly, where “properly” means ‘without an accent’. The languages that you speak may also be too different from the one you’re attempting to learn, or too similar to it (self-fulfilling arguments tend to work both ways), so it is also natural that you are unable to manage linguistic features with which you are unfamiliar, or too familiar.

Unable and linguistic features are the key words here. Language learners are said to fall short of “proper” language learning because languages are said to “have” features which apparently override human abilities. I find this reasoning extremely amusing: it’s like saying that Westerners can’t eat Chinese food properly because Chinese culture “has” chopsticks and Western culture doesn’t. It’s like saying that you’re doomed to the usual patronising, politically correct comments about your accent, which is “naturally” part of your identity, or of your human rights in your new language, and so on, even if you insist that you want to sound like the identity-less, right-less and, naturally, accentless speakers that you hear on tape in your language lab. This reasoning, naturally, also provides whoever invokes it with patronising, politically correct excuses for not doing anything about your accent.

Accents left on their own stay where they are, and become what is known as fossilised accents. The word “fossilised”, according to one dictionary I have handy, means ‘antiquated, fixed or incapable of change or development’. Which, to me, is a pithy definition of the kind of target accents one keeps finding in language courses, decade after decade. Fossilised pronunciation thus seems to be a good thing for model accents, but a bad thing for learner accents. What is wrong with learner accents may well be that they don’t sound quite like the one that textbooks happen to have on offer, an issue addressed in a previous post concerning English. I agree that it can’t be easy to de-fossilise an accent by attempting to re-fossilise it into a different fossil. But I don’t see why learning to eat with chopsticks should be beyond any of us.

The clash of the fossils, to my mind, arises from a misunderstanding of what is going on in language learning. Language learners are (becoming) multilingual, whereas textbook-modelled accents are monolingual. This is why you, the learner, will naturally acquire multilingual accents in your new languages, and probably in your old ones as well, just like monolinguals acquire monolingual accents in their languages. This is not a problem about learner accents, in that there need be no difference between monolingual and multilingual accents. But you won’t “become a native speaker”, a wish sometimes expressed by some of my students, the reason being that you can’t become a monolingual. One additional reason is that it will be you doing the speaking in your new languages, not someone else.

Speech sounds, and therefore accents, do not exist in our languages, they exist in our bodies. This is the argument I made, from a phonetician’s perspective, in a 2009 article with the same title as this post, Multilingual accents, and this is the argument that Rebekah Maggor makes, from her perspective as an actress, playwright, and voice and speech specialist, in her just-published paper Empowering international speakers: An approach to clear and dynamic communication in English. The accent(s) that we have, the ways in which we already use our vocal tracts, are assets to work with, not liabilities to work away from.

Learning languages is what makes us multilingual, but languages cannot be multilingual: people can. I’ll have some more to say about this next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Teaching languages vs. teaching learners. Saturday 24th September 2011.


  1. I learnt English as a child when my family moved to Scotland, when I was in my second year of school. At home, we continued to speak our québécois dialect of french. Having since returned to Canada as an adult, albeit to an anglophone province, I now speak English with a blended anglophone Canadian/Scottish accent, and french with a French Canadian accent, much to the amusement of my mostly bilingual friends. Canadians assumes that I am Scottish, English or Irish, where as when I go back to the UK, they will ask if I'm Canadian or American. However, unless an anglophone speaker is already aware that I am francophone, they never ask questions, and are usually shocked to learn that my first language is not English; that is until I try and speak a language other than English or French. Having learnt Spanish as an adult, hispanophones are usually instantly aware of my French Canadian roots, and will complain that I have an odd accent. When I speak Russian, native Russian speakers can never figure out what my native language might be, but they are keenly aware that it is not Russian.

    We raised my daughter in a French/English bilingual home, and she attends a German Immersion school. As a small child, she spoke English with my blended Scottish/Canadian accent, though after starting school, she now speaks english with a canadian accent. However, when she talks about school related words, she frequently uses the German terms "J'ai oublié mon Notizbuch dans mon Schreibtisch. Can we return et le chercher?". When she is speaking this germfranglais, her accent perfectly matches the language in which that word is from, and flows beautifully and naturally without pauses, as if germfranglais were her native language.

  2. This thing about accents is truly fascinating, Amélie, and your report is living proof of it. I recognised quite a lot of what you say from my own children – and myself.

    You also note the very intriguing matter of assigning “native” languages/“mother” tongues to little multilinguals, something that I’ve discussed extensively in this blog, so I’m delighted that you took the time to bring together all these topics here.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful comment!!


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