People who make Zero Effort to Assimilate the Accent

Ok, so I just heard a native English speaker speaking Spanish quite well. They spoke with some fluidity, quite quickly without pausing much, and with few mistakes (as far as I could tell). However, they appear to have made no effort whatsoever to attempt to take on the Spanish accent. They were basically speaking in their native English accent without a trace of the Spanish accent. It made it really difficult to listen to, and at times I couldn’t understand some basic words because of it. I’d imagine it’d be even harder for a native speaker of Spanish to listen to it.

My question is, do these people deliberately not bother to work on pronunciation? Or is it a result of learning by reading, and using textbooks as opposed to listening to the spoken language? Or maybe they just can’t hear the accent as well as some people, and they can’t hear where the stress is?

I’m not saying my accent is perfect or anything, but I think I at least try to sound somewhat Spanish when I speak it.

Just to say, I’m not one who thinks everyone should sound like a native speaker before attempting to speak, but I’d expect people to at least attempt to get as close as they can to imitating native sounds.

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I’ve heard that its difficult if you’ve only grown up with one language - with almost zero exposure to other languages, even incidentally - for your brain to “hear” the sounds of a foreign language. So then its hard to replicate something you can’t hear in the first place. I don’t know if this is true but, I’ve met a lot of people who speak another language fluently and yet, sound terrible because they can’t mimic the accent. From what they’ve told me they grew up in english communities that spoke only english and heard only english and had zero interaction with immigrants who spoke other languages. And I’ve also met a lot of monolingual adults who started learning languages late and yet managed to pick up a decent accent. Many of them were incidentally surrounded by other languages. For example, in LA, they happened to live around a lot of spanish speakers and heard spanish on the radio or on television since they were kids so I don’t know if that made a difference. But it does seem that your brain picks up “foreign” sounds even if you’re not actively learning another language just through passive exposure.

I like to learn the sounds myself but this is of course easier said than done. Some sounds are very similar with subtle distinctions such as the Serbo-Croatian Č and Ć which both sound like “ch” as in child. Another example is the rolling R.

When I speak English (which I often do with customers) I can have some English accent here and there but definitelz not everzwhere. The problem is that you default to your native accent as you start hesitating, or you pick up a smile from your interlocutor which makes you feel like you are sounding silly or something – and then you default to your native accent unless you can handle it.

I’ve listened a LOT to Serbian and Russian in my time and have picked up what I consider to be a lot of pure Serbian accent and a lot of Ukrainian accent. However, I cannot speak perfectly all the time without ever sounding Norwegian. All considered I think that an accent can be learned in academical style as far as the individual sounds go, but if you are to speak with a native intonation and perfect your sounds you really NEED to listen A LOT for YEARS. Think about it: How many times didn’t you hear a child mix up L and R? It’s not that people have been teaching them to pronounce like that. Human beings just aren’t capable of exactly mimicing accents or even individual words without very much exposure.

My point being that it could just be that these people haven’t had all that much exposure to the language. It could also just be that they are too comfortable with their own accent so they stick to it and don’t really absorb the native accent even if they have the exposure. I have that problem with English. Also, some people are more gifted than others. But whenever I hear, say, a Finnish person speak Norwegian stressing the first syllable of every word, pronouncing ‘u’ not like in French and rolling their R’s I just don’t mind. The most important thing is making yourself understood at the end of the day. If you can do the accent too it’s nice, but prepare to sound silly, which by the way, a lot of people wouldn’t appreciate having to do.

While I was living in France some years ago, I had a friend who had been living there for decades and she still spoke French with an uncontaminated Brooklyn accent. Absolutely fluent French, absolutely Brooklyn accent and cadence. No one seemed unable to understand her, but it sounded harsh to me. For me a big part of the pleasure of learning a language is working to get the accent as good as I can. I will always be detectable as an American but I like to think of myself as an American with a good French or Italian accent.

I can totally understand that. The accent is very important to me too and I try to adjust it as best I can. But it’s just easier said than done sometimes. Some people don’t mind their accents though and that’s probavbly your friend’s attitude.

Sounding Norwegian, or whatever your native language is, is perfectly okay if you are easily understood. You may want to be perfect, but that can be nigh well impossible for most folks. But make the effort to learn the native sounds of your target language – even if you’re imperfect, you’ll be much more easily understood than if you just substitute your native sounds.

In my circle, a colleague from Slovenia speaks excellent English with a soft accent that is no impediment to comprehension, whereas a priest from India has great command of English but is barely understandable.

There is an Englishman on YouTube who travels around Russia making Russian-language videos. While I admire his strong command of the grammar and vocabulary, his English accent in Russian is so heavy that I can barely understand him, and am a bit surprised that his native interlocutors are able to. Criminy, at least try to flatten those vowels!

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Dont be too quick to judge. For learners of spanish in the intermediate bracket, concentrating on the verb conjugation (and word choice, vocabulary, sentence structure changes) can sometimes deflect from the emphasise of pronunciation. When a learner is trying to think quickly to have fluency in their speech, I notice the native accent come through much stronger. Ask them a simple question and they respond with much more concentration on the accent.

I’m sure the majority of learners want to sound native, except for a few that want to retain their identity through their own accent. Its just that thinking about several things at once means the attention to accent is lost.

  • Andy
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I think all the things you suggest are potential factors in cases like you describe where someone speaks a foreign language with the accent of their native language. They may not have any interest in working on pronunciation or achieving the accent of the target language, and this may be related to issues of identity, for example if they see themselves as English rather than Spanish. Besides that there are probably, as you suggest, individual differences in how much people can “hear” accents and take them on. And learning a language by reading rather than listening can definitely lead to speaking with the sounds of one’s native language, since one will generally only have those sounds available to them to use in reading the words.

The last one points to what I think is the overarching factor in how well one speaks with the accent of their target language: the extent to which one has gotten listening input in the language before speaking (and reading).

From my experience I find with listening to enough comprehensible input in the target language BEFORE speaking it much it actually can become hard to NOT speak with the native sounds.

To give two contrasting examples: When I studied French one of my goals was to speak with a good accent, so I put effort into practicing the French accent and pronunciation (It likely helped that I had heard how French should sound over the years incidentally from things like French TV and radio and some French classes at school that I didn’t actually learn much of the language from because they didn’t provide much comprehensible input).

In my French self-study, I first used textbooks and focused on practicing reading, writing, listening, and speaking all at once. I have gotten compliments on my ability to pronounce French, but I’ve found this breaks down when I can’t focus on correct pronunciation because I have to focus on other things like conjugation or how to say what I’m trying to say. Things improved somewhat when I learned about comprehensible input and started focusing on listening, but this was late in the game, and I soon moved on to other languages.

Later, I began learning Thai in a unique program that’s based on just picking up the language without study by listening to teachers who speak it while using things like drawings and gestures to make it comprehensible. In this program students are not supposed to try to speak the language or even think about it (e.g. by comparing its sounds with those of their native language), but instead, just let it become clear and speak only what “pops up”, that is, what comes to mind without effort.

I followed the approach and found that gradually I could say more and more without effort, starting with some words and phrases and eventually sentences. I’m not fluent yet, but I frequently get comments from native Thai speakers that I speak very clearly, and I find that I almost never have problems being understood that are because of my pronunciation.

Much more than French, Thai is reputed to be a difficult language for English speakers because of its tones and other features. While one of my goals, as with French, has been to speak it with a good or even native-like accent, I’ve found that I’ve never really had to put any conscious effort into speaking with the correct tones or pronunciation. It’s just come on its own more and more after listening and understanding a lot first before speaking much, and I find it takes more effort to say things wrong than right.


This is the exact topic I have been thinking about recently, though from a different angle.

I am learning Russian as a second language (English native obviously), and I would consider myself very close to the category of people who have had very little exposure to foreign languages before I decided to start learning one (uncultured swine lol). Based on what hopefully is honest feedback from native Russian speakers, I seem to have very natural articulation (better accent, so to speak, but I don’t like the word “better”) when speaking Russian than most other learners at my proficiency level. And furthermore, this is via mostly listening to audio material. For example, I hear other Russian learners holding conversations/interviews that I would consider above my level – speaking with less pauses, responding faster, using a larger vocabulary, etc – but their accent is way “off.” I have been wondering what this might mean. A few questions I ask myself:

  • Am I picking up the accent quicker than most, or does it mean I am picking up vocabulary slower than most?
  • If I deliberately try to pay less attention to picking up the accent, will my brain pick up the rest of the aspects of the language faster?
  • Is reading or listening a more effective method of vocabulary acquisition?
  • Is there a ballpark ratio between reading and listening that tends to be most effective? 50/50? 80/20? etc.
  • Is this just my unique personal learning trajectory? Perhaps I’m overthinking it all!
    I know that language learning is by no means a competition, and as such, I shouldn’t be worried about how well I’m doing compared to others. It isn’t like that at all. Rather, I want to know if I could be going about vocabulary acquisition via an inferior method. I am trying to find as tangible ways as possible for tracking my progress.

I also expect a lot of myself since I am an English/writing tutor, so it feels so odd to go into Russian mode and become utterly linguistically incompetent when I am used to feeling quite capable hahaha. Anybody have any thoughts on this?

You see the same thing quite a lot with older generations of Americans who speak Japanese. No attempt to imitate Japanese accent/intonation. However, I think it bothers learners like me more than Japanese people themselves. On the contrary, many Japanese people seem to think a thick American accent sounds cool haha.

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