That's a funny accent you have there...
September 17, 2010 12:29 PM   Subscribe

Is there a term in linguistics for the residual accent a non-native speaker has when speaking English?

I learned Arabic in a small classroom environment with other English speakers from across the country. Some had strong regional accents (in English) which then also transferred over to them speaking in Arabic (Arabic with a Geordie/Liverpudlian accent!) which made me cringe to hear it. However, I got thinking about it and thought "I can nearly always identify a non native E flush speaker just by the sound of their accent." People from India/Pakistan being the obvious examples. Then I got to thinking... you could have a Russian, a German, a Pakistani and a Korean all learn English from the exact same source materials and yet they'd all still have an identifiable sound. This sound is also common amongst others of their respective nationalities (Germans sound like Germans and so on). So, finally getting to my question, is there a reason/name for this phenomenon? Where can I read more about it?
posted by Biru to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
it's called an "accent". And it's because different languages have different "rules" about what sounds sounds like, and even more so what sounds come next to each other.

Say the word "top". Now say the word "pot". Do you hear how those t's are actually totally different sounds (you can put your hand in front of your mouth to feel how a totally different amount of air comes out for the 2 t's)? In English, those sounds both qualify as "t", but in another language, those might be different letters -- this accounts for the common Asian confusion of L and R in English -- those are different letters in English, but they're the same letter in many Asian languages, and they have specific (implicit) rules about when you use them -- you would never use the "t" from the end of pot at the beginning of top, and in fact it would be really, really difficult to do so. That's just one example, but there are many like it.
posted by brainmouse at 12:51 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hmm, I've never heard of any specific term for this other than "native accent," but I do know a little about the process by which it happens. When babies begin to babble, apparently they babble using the full range of sounds that the human mouth is capable of producing. But eventually, they only babble with the specific sounds of the language they're hearing. Then after that, they start actually saying words in their language.

So the implication here is that the only thing imprinted more strongly on a person than their native language are the specific *sounds* of their native language. The exact way that a 't' is articulated, the exact way to hold your mouth for a vowel. So even once all the words and grammar of a second language have been learned, it is another process entirely for one's accent to sound completely native in the new language.

I'd look up linguistics, phonetics, and child development for more information.
posted by sunnichka at 12:52 PM on September 17, 2010

It's an aspect of language transfer or linguistic interference. From the Wikipedia article:

"More transparently, differing phonological distinctions between a speaker's first language and English create a tendency to neutralize such distinctions in English, and differences in the inventory or distribution of sounds may cause substitutions of native sounds in the place of difficult English sounds and/or simple deletion."
posted by jedicus at 12:57 PM on September 17, 2010

this accounts for the common Asian confusion of L and R in English -- those are different letters in English, but they're the same letter in many Asian languages

For example, the R sound in Japanese is not the same sound as either English R or English L, but is a third sound which is close enough to both to be perceived as one or the other by English speakers. Thus, most Japanese people don't perceive a difference between English R and English L, just as most English speakers don't perceive a difference between Japanese "su" and Japanese "tsu" (because the latter is a distinction we don't make). It doesn't matter whether a Japanese person pronounces 理解 in a way which sounds to English speakers more like "rikai" or more like "likai", because there is no such distinction in Japanese -- to Japanese speakers, they're the same sound and the same word. This is why words like election/erection and rain/lane are such a hassle for Japanese ESL speakers... keeping track of an important distinction between what you perceive as two examples of the same syllable is difficult. This is also why it's hard for native-English JSL speakers to learn to correctly reproduce Japanese ra/ri/ru/re/ro, rather than throwing an English L or R in there because "it's the same sound". On both sides, speakers of their second language end up with a bit of an accent, because they are re-learning to reproduce new sounds as adults rather than learning to produce them natively as infants.

Here is a video with an instructor who sounds (to English speakers) like he's saying "la li lu le lo". Here's one who sounds like he's saying "ra ri ru re ro". Doesn't matter, it's the same sound in Japanese. This video has a good demonstration of how to pronounce it correctly -- when you learn it this way, it's easy to see that whether it comes out as something which can be perceived by English speakers as English R or English L is mostly a matter of how far forward or back your tongue is, but it's still the same sound in Japanese. Hope this helps to explain why accents happen.
posted by vorfeed at 2:31 PM on September 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree, it's just an accent. Sure it may be Japanese or Spanish or Arabic in origin but it's just called an accent. That said, you might be interested in shibboleths (words or cultural practices which identify one's origin). They have a linguistic origin.

I teach English in Spain and there are a number of reasons the Spanish have the accent they do. For example, in Spanish there are only five vowel sounds, one for each letter, so forming the twenty or so vowel sounds in English is nigh on impossible for non bilinguals. The d in Spanish is very soft, almost a th sound and the position of the tongue when saying d is different to the position to pronounce a hard english d. Basically, what vorfeed said.

Oh and Top and Pot, the t is identical when I say them, but that's because I'm English whereas Brainmouse, I guess, is from the US.
posted by itsjustanalias at 2:56 PM on September 17, 2010

What's interesting to me is how regional accents are portrayed in different languages - usually the stresses are almost completely different but the source is still clear. I was watching a French-language play with characters of various nationalities and got really absorbed by how, for example, Italian and German accents were represented in French. I concluded that it has less to do with an inherent singular set of recognizable traits in a given language, and more with what linguistic traits are the most different from those in the language being spoken.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 3:04 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

bah, sorry for the failed example for non-Americans. I believe it should work with a British accent with stop versus top, but my British accent knowledge is pretty shaky, so it's possible that's a bad example too...
posted by brainmouse at 3:07 PM on September 17, 2010

As a Mexican classmate of mine in my first ever linguistics seminar in grad school observed upon learning of the concept of phonemic interference (which is the term I think you want), "now I understand why people look at me funny when I say I have a problem with my vowels."
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:08 PM on September 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

One simple example of this -- I heard an actor talking about how to do a Russian or Eastern European accent once, and they gave the example of a certain vowel sound: when a Russian says "I want to buy a coat" and when they say "I want to buy a cot", they should sound exactly the same. Russians are used to the short "o" of "cot", but not the long one of "coat".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:20 PM on September 17, 2010

People from India/Pakistan being the obvious examples.

Except that a lot of South Asians speak English as a first language and still have that familiar 'accent'. To the point that the subcontinent has its own particular dialect of English.
posted by Sara C. at 6:34 PM on September 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

In which case, the "accent" is a "dialect."
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:15 AM on September 18, 2010

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