Everyone speaks with an accent, even in their native language. But when we talk about “having an accent,” we usually mean that we speak differently from those around us, and it may be interfering with how we are understood or how we are perceived by others.
What makes an accent? Here’s the basics of why we have an accent in our second and third languages. Unless we spoke a language from early childhood, we will have differences in pronunciation and intonation in the language. This is because our language and speech patterns in the brain are shaped by the first language we hear and speak. Babies as young as a few months old already begin to respond differently to the sounds and patterns of their native language, because the pathways forming in their brains are continually refining and strengthening to prepare them for the complex systems required for speech and language. When we first begin to speak as small children, we are inaccurate with some of the speech sounds, and we refine and correct with input from the speakers around us.
By the time we have developed our language skills for all communication functions, we have a complex sound map in our brains based on the phonemes of our native language. This sound system then acts as a filter on what we hear, allowing us to comprehend the speech of others despite variability in speech. But when we learn additional languages, this filter also negatively affects our ability to hear differences in the new language. Our brain tries to apply our sound map onto to the new language, and where the sounds don’t line up, we mis-hear and mis-pronounce the sounds.
For example, many language have the /i/ phoneme. In English, this is the vowel sound in the words we, eat and need. English has another phoneme that is very similar to /i/, which is the /ɪ/ sound in the words it, him and give. Many other languages do not have this /ɪ/ phoneme, and because it is close to the /i/ phoneme, it will be heard as /i/. This means that if when you speak English, you might say /i/ in words that should have /ɪ/. But you won’t hear a difference between what you are saying and what a native speaker is saying. When you say “I live in Seattle” it sounds correct to you, but to an American it sounds more like you said “I leave in Seattle.”
In addition to sound differences like the /i/ and /ɪ/ vowels, we can have accent error patterns on sounds that are the same in both languages. The reason this occurs is that if we have a sound in our native language, but we don’t use that sound in all word positions, we will only use it correctly in some places in words when we speak English. Let’s use the /g/ sound as an example. Most people say this sound correctly in words like go, give, and get. They have the /g/ sound in their native language, and they can say it in English with no problem. But in words like big, dog and bag, they make an error on this sound. To an American listener, it sounds like they are saying bick, dock and back. Their /g/ sounds more like /k/. Why does this happen? Because although they have a /g/ in their native language, in only occurs in the beginning and middle of words, not at the end. So they use a similar sound which does occur on the ends of words in their language, /k/. Again, you may not hear this in your own speech, but your American listeners will hear it and perceive it as accented speech.
Of course accents are more complex than just single sounds, but understanding the relationship between the sound system in your native language and the sound system in American English will go a long way to understanding your accent.
For more information about the accent patterns you can expect in your speech based on your native language, download one of our free Accent Overviews. Or, get a free trial to our online courses, which include accent patterns for all languages.