You’ve spent years, even decades, perfecting your English. You have advanced-level English skills but are frustrated by communication breakdowns due to your accent. You have tried to improve your pronunciation using free online resources and perhaps have even hired an English tutor but have yet to see significant progress. You might be wondering why your accent remains despite language proficiency or long-term residency in North America.
Before I answer the question of why you have an accent, here is an important caveat – everyone has an accent. Everyone. Native speakers have native accents, and non-native speakers have non-native accents. There are countless native English accents – American, British, Jamaican, Australian, Southern American, Scottish, Eastern Canadian… The list is endless. Your accent simply tells people where you’re from and (sometimes) your socioeconomic status. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with having an accent. You should only be concerned about your accent when you’re not being understood by those you interact with.
So, let’s rephrase the question slightly – “Why do you have a non-native accent?” A non-native accent is the influence of your native language on the language you are learning. There are four main types of influences:
1. Influence at the level of speech-sound perception
Do you have trouble distinguishing between the words “leave” and “live,” or between “rice,” and “lice”? You are not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called “perpetual narrowing” or “perpetual reorganization.” We are all born with the incredible ability to perceive all the speech sounds in the world, approximately 600 consonants and 200 vowels. However, at around six months of age, babies gradually start to only tune into the speech sound distinctions that matter in their environment and ignore the rest. Within the first year of our lives, sound contrasts that do not exist in our native language become challenging to distinguish. Hence, for instance, many Japanese speakers have difficulties telling the difference between “l” and “r,” a distinction that does not exist in Japanese.
2. Influence at the level of speech-sound production
Learning to produce speech sounds that do not exist in your native language can be a challenge, partly due to difficulties at the level of perception, and partly due to having to move speech-production mechanisms in ways that you’re not used to. One good example is the “th.” Almost all non-native speakers have difficulties with the “th” because it is a rare sound, existing in only approximately 7% of the world’s languages.
Moreover, some English sounds may exist in your native language, but you may produce them differently. For instance, Indian speakers tend to produce “t” and “d” with the tongue tip curled up and making contact with the palate. In contrast, the English “t” and “d” are made with the tongue tip flat and pointed forward, touching the alveolar ridge (the junction between the upper front teeth and the palate). The Indian “retroflex t and d” is a very distinctive feature of the “Indian accent.”
3. Influence at the level of sound patterns
Right around the same time that babies go through the “perpetual narrowing,” paying attention to sounds of their native language, they also start to pay attention to the sequences in which these sounds occur. Research shows that babies show a preference for words made up of sound combinations that exist in their native language. This means that if English has sound combinations that do not exist in your native language, it can pose some difficulties. For instance, the syllabic structure in Mandarin is either a vowel (V) or consonant-vowel (CV). In English, we have V (e.g., “I”) and CV (e.g., “do”), but we also have VC (e.g., “at”), CVC (e.g., “fat”), CCV (e.g., “flat”), CVCCC (e.g., “facts”) and many more where there is no vowel following a consonant, and all of which do not exist in Mandarin. Consequently, Chinese speakers tend to either add a vowel after a consonant or delete consonants. For instance, they might say “fi” instead of “five,” or “se-to-pu“ instead of “stop.”
4. Influence at the level of prosody
Prosody is the melody of a language and includes elements such as stress patterns, intonation, how we link the words together, and rate of speech. Each language has its unique prosodic features, and these features are often transferred to the language we’re learning. Indian speakers, for instance, tend to speak very fast and have many pitch changes within the same sentence and even the same word, a pattern that is not typical in English. These prosodic differences strongly contribute to what we perceive as an “Indian accent.”
As our personal and professional worlds become increasingly diverse culturally, ethnically, and linguistically, I believe in embracing this diversity. Be proud of your accent, native or non-native. It is who you are. If, however, your accent is standing in your way of communicational clarity, of personal and professional achievement, and of your level of confidence, then contact me today. I help non-native English speakers become effective communicators, using science-based accent modification techniques. It’s time to discover a world of new opportunities as a confident speaker.