7 Vote

My grandmother's mother moved to the United States and learned English at age 19. She lived until age 100, when she passed away.

This means that she spoke her native language for 19 or 20 years and spoke English for about 80 years. However, her accent was so thick, that you could hardly understand her - even though she spoke English for 80 years!

A child can learn to speak like a native in just a few years, but an adult cannot.

Two thoughts come to mind:

1) Are there other aspects of language (such as prepositions) that must be learned while young, or they are never mastered?

2) Are there examples of adults who have learned a second (or third) language and mastered the pronunciation aspects well enough to be considered to speak "without an accent".

It would be interesting to hear other stories like that one about my Great Grandmother.

  • Posted Aug 17, 2010
  • | link
  • | flag
  • Interesting question Petersenkid2 - Izanoni1 Aug 18, 2010 flag
  • I always thought it was crazy that the language she spoke for 20 years so much overshadowed the language she spoke for 80 years. You would think the first language accent would 'wear off', but not at all. - petersenkid2 Aug 18, 2010 flag

10 Answers

4 Vote

I don't know exactly when she learned it, but my freshman year of high school I had a Spanish teacher from whom I learned a lot. When I knew her, I would guess that she had lived in the US for about 60 years, but she grew up in South America. I don't know exactly when she learned English, but I seem to recall that she was between 15 and 18 years old, which is definitely past the generally agreed upon age cap for ability to speak like a native-speaker. Her English was flawless. Better than most of the students'. No accent or anything. I only realized she wasn't a native English speaker when about three quarters of the way through the school year she asked a question about English that indicated that she thought we had more knowledge about English than she did. It was a good question, perfectly reasonable, and (though I can't remember it exactly) quite advanced. Someone volunteered the answer and someone asked if English wasn't her first language, and she told us it wasn't.

I guess you keep learning even after others stop noticing.

2 Vote

Sure. Actors do it all the time. They can learn an accent without even knowing the language. I don't know how much is inborn talent and how much is just training. It's really a matter of training your ear, IMHO. Plus lots and lots of practice and listening to recordings of yourself talking.

Edit: I should qualify this by saying that there are some sounds that some people cannot hear if they are not exposed to them at a young age. Many native Japanese speakers cannot hear the difference between the English "L" and "R" sounds. There are certain Native American and African languages that would be very difficult to learn to speak accent-free if you learned them as an adult. But a native English speaker should be able to learn to speak Spanish pretty well, regardless of the age they start. The sounds just aren't that different.

  • You can tell that Andy Garcia worked to lose his Spanish accent in recent years. I liked him better before. - JoyceM Aug 19, 2010 flag
  • Excellent example! I wonder how old he was when he learned it. - petersenkid2 Aug 19, 2010 flag
2 Vote

I would have to say yes to your original question. I've done some studies as an undergrad on linguistics, accents and pronunciation and such, and after some training, I speak great spanish, verified by hispanohablantes de Guinea Equitorial, México, Colombia, etc. (not just being pompous).

There are certain physical processes that need to be taught to master any language, as far as accents are concerned.

As far as whether or not all of these processes can be learned and implemented by an oldie learning a new language, I don't know.

My 2 cents. :D

  • I speak great Spanish too, and without much of an accent, and without really trying, but it's because (I believe) I learned it (or at least the sounds) at a very young age. Even so, I'm only rarely confused for a native speaker. - petersenkid2 Aug 17, 2010 flag
2 Vote

I have heard people speak Polish who only learnt it as adults and you can see straight away they hadn't learned it as kids. However Polish is one of the most difficult languages in the world and the pronounciations are exceptionally difficult. Some people need operations on their toungues just to be able to speak it properly so i suppose with Spanish or English, learning to speak it properly is more easily achieved.

  • Wow! Operations on their toungues! - petersenkid2 Aug 18, 2010 flag
  • I've never known anyone who learned English as an adult and did not have an accent. Sometimes it is really subtle but it can still be heard. - cyborgrabbit Jul 7, 2012 flag
2 Vote

This is a good question. In my opinion it's okay if someone has a little accent. My first language is Dutch. I'm fluent in English. I do feel that in my mind I think perfect English, and when I try to make the words come out, my tongue gives me the Dutch accent, and sentences come out less good. My English is still good, but it's annoying that my thinking in English is better than speaking. When I'm surrounded by English/American people my English does get better.

On my holiday last week I noticed something else. I was visiting friends in England and for the whole week I had no problems. One morning I was doing a video lesson on spanishdict, and when I wanted to speak English that day, I found out that I just lost it (my English). The whole day my English was a mess! So I think my brain had a language barrier or overload! It couldn't cope translating from Dutch to English and learning Spanish at the same time. Big Language error in my brain hihi :D and the result: an English shut-down. We did have a big laugh about it, me and my friends. I really said funny things that day, things that just weren't any language I think. hihi.

Looking forward to reading more stories about this subject!

2 Vote

May I suggest (the) your problem understanding your great grandmother was not only about her having an accent but also, at least in part, due to incorrect pronunciation.

We ALL have accents. As said above good actors can sound authentic even without understanding the language.

I remember the film "Out of Africa" starring Merryl Streep. She spoke perfect English in the film but played the part of a Danish lady. She had a very slight Danish accent that very few people in the world would have recognised. Someone had taught her how to do this.

  • Very cool. Not only was it an accent that my great grandmother had, but all kinds of crazy half and half words. - petersenkid2 Aug 19, 2010 flag
  • Excellent comment about M. Streep, btw. Wikipdia says she is exceptionally skilled, and includes other examples. G. Paltrow, on the other hand, lived in England when young, I believe. - petersenkid2 Aug 19, 2010 flag
1 Vote

I taught English in the Czech Republic and met dozens of Czech people who you would be full sure were English (Sometimes American, sometimes Irish, depending on where they learned English) when you talked to them. I would have bet money on it!

Czech and English are very very different languages, Spanish and English have a lot more in common, so I'm sure it's very possible.

English speaking people find pronunciation from other Germanic languages like German and Dutch easiest, but with hard work you can do anything smile

Remember your grandmother didn't have all the resources available to her when she was learning English as we do now learning Spanish.

If you are really serious about getting rid of your accent it might be worth looking into getting special "lose your accent" classes. I know they do them in English, I assume in Spanish too. But I really think it's a pity when someone looses their accent. How you talk is something about who you are.

  • Did these Czechs learn English as adults? - petersenkid2 Aug 17, 2010 flag
  • Yes of course :) But they did all live in an English-speaking country for a while. I think it's kind of sad to compltetly destroy your own accent, you can speak clearly and still have one. But some people prefer it that way. :) - rabbitwho Aug 17, 2010 flag
  • Edited to change "loose" to "lose" - Izanoni1 Aug 18, 2010 flag
  • Wupps! Thanks. - rabbitwho Aug 18, 2010 flag
  • My stephdad is American, and I'm Dutch. He is fluent in Spanish but does have an accent. He's starting to learn Dutch now. The thing you said about English is simmilar to Dutch and easiest to learn: I can't believe that. Dutch is extremely difficult. - IlseD Aug 19, 2010 flag
1 Vote

Honestly I think it depends on the individual - and don't forget that people like your grandmother Peter, lived a unique set of circumstances, she probably did not work and probably was surrounded by Spanish speakers in the house? That would make the difference. She probably lived in a little Spanish 'bubble' so I would not fault her for not having made more progress. I have met so many polyglots (mostly Europeans) who absolutely dominate English and believe me I am critical (without meaning to be so) but for some reason my brain seems to pick up the errors and make a note of them and it astounds me the level of knowledge the Europeans seem to acquire. Meanwhile here in Canada they can`t even seem to get school kids to learn our second official language properly. I just don't get it. The study of language is fascinating isn't it.

  • Actually, she was Ukranian. - petersenkid2 Aug 18, 2010 flag
  • And yes, it is fascinating. As it turns out, my best friend from High School, who I learned Spanish with, grew up to be a Linguistics Professor! - petersenkid2 Aug 18, 2010 flag
  • Ukranian? So cool! But doesn't matter right the premise stands. Re LP - that is career!!! - margaretbl Aug 18, 2010 flag
1 Vote

A lot depends on whether the people who are learning a language as an adult are living solely amongst their adopted language speakers , and are not living at home speaking their native language. Also there are many people who are "language Parrots" in other words they have the ability to copy the accents quickly and easily . If you notice great actors who play a role of a character who speaks in an accent or language other than their own , they are able to make themselves sound quite authentic , those who have a good ear for music can usually copy an accent quite readily , I am sure we all have this ability if we try hard enough and believe in our natural instincts for survival.

1 Vote

I agree with Margaretbl and Ray76 - some people do it better than others, it's an innate ability. However, it's an ability that should be nurtured early in life, just like music. I have met Americans who have this knack, but less in numbers, because Americans do not encourage their children to learn foreign languages - so, they don't know if they have this ability or not, and do not develop it.

My father was Italian, went to Brazil at age 6, lived there for almost 40 years, then moved to Bolivia for 4 years, and finally to the US. Although he had a great ability for languages, he did have an accent, and whenever someone mentioned his accent, he would say "speaking a foreign language requires you to make mistakes to learn; I make mistakes and have an accent in four languages - and you?"

Answer this Question