Foreign language accents and levels of thought

By | August 13, 2014

I think it’s commonly accepted that the younger you start learning a new language, the easier it is to become fluent. The human brain just seems to have more plasticity at an early age, and many studies seem to give credence to that idea. But it’s not to say that taking on a new foreign language in your 40s, 50s, or even later is too late – depending on how focused you are and the time spent (plus your linguistic abilities), you can still make great progress and learn to communicate in that language to some degree.

One area that is particularly difficult to master completely is pronunciation. Depending on where you live and work, there’s a good chance that around you are some people who are quite fluent in English but have an accent because they started learning English a little later in life. For that reason I don’t expect to ever be able to polish my Japanese to the level that I am indistinguishable from a foreigner. Honestly if I can master grammar completely and be able to fluently speak about almost anything on my mind, I’ll consider my foreign language study a success.

In my own life experiences I look for events that relate to learning (and sometimes unlearning) of foreign language accents, and sometimes these can point to interesting things about how the mind learns languages.

One such anecdote is when I was drinking alcohol with some friends that spoke Japanese, and later I was told that my Japanese pronunciation got significantly worse (had more of an ‘accent’) when I was inebriated. Of course my English was likely slurred to some extend, but the interesting thing is that my Japanese pronunciation was not only slurred, but it seemed to devolve to sounding more like English.

Another story that stands out in my memory is when a workmate told me how a relative had gotten Alzheimer’s, and around that time a thick accent returned to his English speech which had long disappeared several decades back.

What’s common between these two cases is that the way we learn and retain things is different between an adult an a child. The way I think of it is that our native language we’ve learned as a child is more ingrained at a lower level (In computer terms, this seems to parallel to the concept of ‘hardware’ or possibly ‘operating system’)  and things we learn later are done at a much higher level. Foreign language pronunciation learned on a high level can sound quite natural, but it takes more effort and processing time, both consciously and subconsciously. For that same reason, I can listen to English in the background while attending to some other task and understand the general gist of what is being said, but with Japanese I have to make a much greater effort and cannot effectively multitask listening.

If you have any interesting or educational stories about foreign language accents please let me know!

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4 thoughts on “Foreign language accents and levels of thought

  1. Emi

    Hi locksleyu!
    Just wanted to add my comments on this one.

    I’ve read a book called “fluent forever”, and in case you (or anyone reading this post) haven’t read it yet, it talks about how babies under the age of 1 are able to hear a whole spectrum of sounds, but will start to discard the unnecessary ones as they grow up. That’s why a Japanese baby with Japanese DNA and whatnots who is living in England from birth, would pick up the native English accent there without any difficulty.

    Also, children are perceived to learn better but it is because they get much more input than adults do. In a kid’s first six years of life, they’re exposed to tens of thousands of hours of language. Those who take the normal route of a few years of language classes in school are lucky to even hear just more than a few hundred hours, and many of those hours are spent talking about a language rather than talking in a language.

    If we had Spanish-speaking adults talking to us for twelve to sixteen hours a day for six years, we would probably speak Spanish at least as well as your average Spanish-speaking six-year old. Although we don’t have the adaptability of listening that babies have, we’re very good at spotting patterns and we’ve developed better learning strategies than toddlers and preschoolers. So if we stop comparing kids with thousands of hours of language exposure to adults with hundreds of hours, we’ll see a surprising trend: on average, adults learn languages faster than kids do.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the long interesting comment. Though I haven’t read that book you referred to, I have heard about some of the studies quoted. I agree that adults have great potential, possibly even faster than babies in some respects. However, it’s pretty clear to me there are some things which are very hard, if not impossible, to learn as one gets older. For example, I have met people who have come to the US in their 30s and after 10 or 20 years, they still have a strong access and grammar problems. So just being exposed to a lot of language isn’t necessarily enough to learn it.

      I do think the person’s attitude and inborn characteristics are also major factors here as well.

      But the bottom line is that anyone who puts in enough time can become “fluent” enough in order to live in a country that speaks that language, assuming they spent a few years of their time. Whether they can necessarily approach the skill level of a native speaker is still up in the air, however, especially in the area of pronunciation which is especially difficult to attain when older.

      1. Emi

        Thank you for your reply 🙂
        Oh indeed the person’s attitude and inborn characteristics are also major factors here as well.
        I totally agree with you on a person’s attitude. The thirst for learning needs to be present!


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