MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Can Anyone Ever Really Lose Their Accent?

Some folks might be able to pull off a Scottish accent every now & then whenever they try to quote something from Braveheart. But is it possible for someone to ever truly lose his or her native accent & replace it with a new one?

Actually…no. The way you speak now will most likely going to be with you for the rest of your life.

Defined as “pronunciation conventions of a language shaped by factors such as region, culture, and class”, a person’s accent develops as early as 6 months old. When a baby is learning the words for cat and mama and play, they’re also learning how to pronounce the sounds in those words from the people around them. Newborn brains are wired to recognize & learn languages just from exposure to them, so that, by the time the babies start talking, they know the correct pronunciations to use for their native language.

As we age, our instinctive understanding of foreign accents & languages gets weaker. So, if you’re, say, an English speaker raised in Brooklyn, you might think the English that someone from Alabama speaks ultimately sounds “wrong”, though you might not be able to articulate precisely what it is that makes it sound wrong. And that’s why pulling off a convincing foreign accent can be so difficult, even if you’ve been exposed to it frequently & repeatedly before.

Around age 18, your ability to learn a second language takes a steep nosedive, and the same is mostly true for your ability to speak in a new accent. If you immerse yourself in a foreign environment for long enough, you may be able to pick up some bits & pieces of the local accent, but totally adopting a non-native accent without making a conscious effort to maintain it is unlikely as an adult.

The one exception to that rule, though, is Foreign Accent Syndrome. Following a head injury or stroke, some people have reported suddenly speaking in accents they didn’t grow up using. The syndrome is incredibly rare, with only 100 people around the world having been diagnosed with it, and medical experts aren’t sure why brain injuries cause it. But while patients may be pronouncing their words differently, they aren’t exactly using foreign accents in the way most people think of them; the culprit may be subtle changes to muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx that change the way patients pronounce certain vowels.

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