We typically use “accent” to describe the way someone sounds when speaking a distinct dialect or a foreign language. The essence of an accent is about pronunciation — or rather perceived mispronunciation.
Pronunciation plays a major role in language learning, especially for those attempting to reach a native speaker level. Luckily, researchers have examined whether it’s actually possible for you to lose your accent. But don’t worry: You can’t misplace it like your car keys.
What Is An Accent And Where Does It Come From?
By default, an accent is a distinct pronunciation that doesn’t match the “standard” set by the dominant social group. You probably don’t talk much about accents with people that share your speech patterns, because, like fish in the sea, the proverbial water goes unnoticed. It’s only when a non-local comes to town, turning heads with their peculiar way of saying aluminum (conversely, aluminium), that people start to notice something.
So how exactly does an accent form? Well, people talk differently depending on where they’re from and what language(s) they grew up speaking and hearing. Much like ourselves, our accents are products of our environments: Socioeconomic class, ethnic grouping and education all affect language. Speech patterns shared across a region or group of people are generalized to create overarching dialect categories. Some examples are Australian English, General American or African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
However, intersecting backgrounds differ from person to person. Each of us has what linguists call an “idiolect”: a dialect unique to an individual. Researchers generally agree that your own accent is fully formed and fixed by the time you reach adulthood. But of course, it’s not quite that simple.
When Your Accent Changes Over Time
Language exchange happens in conjunction with human migration and shifting population demographics. For that reason, general speech and pronunciation patterns constantly shift and change. The same goes for individuals. Though it’s likely your accent won’t change drastically once you’ve hit your 20s, it can be influenced by the changing environment around you.
Living in a place where you’re immersed in a foreign language is one classic example. After an extended stay abroad, you may find yourself using words you wouldn’t usually include in your daily vocabulary. Your accent is also prone to picking up external influences, though these changes are typically more subconscious and subtle.
Our accents are also along for the ride as we constantly renegotiate our own identities. Human interaction plays a big part here: Depending on the setting or conversation partner, we instinctively adjust our way of speaking to the people around us. In professional contexts, you may assume a polished accent, only to swap it later for a more casual or regional one when chatting with friends.
Why Change An Accent?
Let’s stop for a moment and consider some of the reasons for actively wanting to change the way you speak. Most often, an extrinsic motivation exists. Actors are notorious (and sometimes infamous) for wearing accents like a costume. All else aside, it is impressive to hear the likes of Meryl Streep mastering a Polish or an Australian accent, despite having grown up in the US.
While it can be fun to try on different accents, it can quickly lead to stereotypical and offensive generalizations. Such prejudice against non-native speakers prompts another reason for changing speech: the eagerness to lose one’s natural accent in order to fit in or be understood by others.
In recent years, there’s been a market boom of accent elimination courses and books claiming to get rid of your accent in some 28 days or less. The trend in wanting “accent-free” speech is especially noticeable in marginalized groups of people. With social inequities such as job discrimination, many people who have accents set out to change the way they speak. It’s a shame when anyone is made to feel they need to alter something about themself to feel accepted. After all, there’s no such thing as a “correct” accent.
That said, the desire to be understood is a valid motivation for improving your pronunciation skills. You might be familiar with the insecurity of trying to explain something important in a foreign language and being unsure if the other person can completely comprehend you. Communication is a huge part of the human need to express ourselves and be understood.
How To Change Your Accent (If You Want To)
Though it’s challenging to lose your accent entirely, it is possible to change it. To improve your pronunciation skills, you’ll need to exercise both your mouth and ears. There’s actually a whole field of language coaching dedicated to this called accent reduction or modification. Extra focus is placed on familiarizing the mouth with unfamiliar shapes and training the ears to pick up subtle differences in articulation.
Dialect coaches, YouTube tutorials and podcasts are some of the many resources out there. And simply immersing yourself in a foreign language can take you a long way. Of course, everyone is different in their ability and the time it takes to pick up a foreign language. Pronunciation is no exception. Just like working out, though, if you dedicate enough time and focus, you’ll definitely see results.
Bottom Line: You’ll always have an accent that’s unique to you. Like your own identity, it can evolve over time, though less drastically as you go through life. If you’ve decided that you want to alter your accent, it’s certainly possible to achieve native-ish pronunciation. You’ll just need to put in the extra practice!
And if that doesn’t appeal to you, then simply embrace the accent you already have!