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Why You Have a Foreign Accent in a New Language [Part 1]

Two Asian people discussing why you have a foreign accent in a new language

Accents. Everybody notices them immediately when a foreigner speaks their language. But, why does this foreigner experience such difficulties in pronouncing the sounds like a native speaker? This is the core question of my new blog entry “Why you have a foreign accent in a new language.” As I find this fascinating topic worthy of a series of blogs, this will only be the first part of it! Thus, stay curious!

The Difference Between an Accent and a Dialect

A misbelief has manifested itself amongst a lot of people. The word “accent” is often interchangeably used with the word “dialect.” I have often heard a native speaker say the following over a foreigner: “I could hardly understand him. He spoke with a foreign dialect” Now, this might be accurate. In most cases, it’s not. Read on to find out why.

Both terms, however, mean two different things. So, I want to do away with such significant misconception before we get to the ground of the main blog question!

A dialect is what you say

Please read the headline once more and take a moment to think about it. We all know dialects in our own country. Every country has the following stereotypical dialects:

  • The funny sounding one
  • The arrogant one (often in the capital city)
  • The horrible sounding one
  • The retarded one (few grammar rules used)
  • The dialect-free dialect
  • The slow one
  • The hardly understandable one

My South Serbian dialect as a subform of the Torlakian dialect, for example, is a perfect example for a dialect that is seen as kind of retarded. We usually do not employ all of the seven grammar cases correctly but follow different rules. These are generally considered to be less demanding as the standard norms. Therefore, our dialect is seen as funny and cutely erroneous. Such a perception is deeply wrong. This becomes clear when a person from another part of Serbia tries to imitate it. It never sounds authentic even though it seems to be “a simple dialect.”

Diving deeper into the dialect matter…

The word dialect is pretty ancient. It comes from the Greek word dialektos and means language, discourse, or speech. It also comes from dialegesthai. Dia means between or across, -leg is to pick or collect, -legein then is to talk, speak (“pick words”). So, when thinking about the term “dialect”, we are speaking about the choice of words.

Greek statue showing the origins of the word "dialect"

A dialect is, moreover, peculiar to a specific group or region. Dialects of the same language usually are intelligible among each other (Bavarian German is an exception that proves the rule). E.g., people from Franconia will greet you using the phrase “Grüß Gott!” or “Servus!”, which is not used in other parts of Germany. That being said, I will devote the topic “dialects” an own blog entry in the future. If you want to know more immediately, I recommend this short article from LINGUA CORE.

Thus, a dialect is what you say, the words you choose, and the way in which you use them. What is an accent, then?

An accent is how you say something

I believe that almost all of us had music lessons at some point during their famous high school days. Do you remember these little horizontal wedges looking like “>.” What were those for again? They instruct us to play these notes more forcefully.

Why did I choose this particular comparison from the domain of music? Because a linguistic accent is a familiar concept. Let’s look once more at the origins.

Again Greek and Latin words? Boring …

Dead languages are most probably not the most mainstream topic. But, these dead words form the basis of our modern languages. My personal experience has shown that they explain concepts quite effectively. “Accent” comes from the Latin term accentus. This word consists of two parts: ac from ad meaning to- and -centus from cantus meaning -tone. Et voila, we get the word “to-tone.”

Therefore, an accent is the tone you add to a word or/ and its syllables! Yes, this means tha every dialect probably has its own accent. Both terms are strongly related to each other. As a matter of fact, we all speak with an accent and employ some dialect! An accent is only but a part of a dialect as latter is comprised of its particular accent, choice of words, and grammar!

I want to stress that two groups of accents exist: native accents and foreign accents. A native accent is simply how people speaking the same language pronounce words differently. E.g., in Southern Germany and Austria, we pronounce hard consonants such as P, T, or K softly like a B, D or G. This is why Germans from the northern parts immediately recognize our accent. Thus, unlike a dialect, accents are the sounds you produce and use when saying something.

What is a Foreign Accent?

Now is when it get truly interesting. Especially if you are learning a foreign language. Depending on your mother tongue and the language you are learning, pronouncing words exactly like the native speakers might seem incredibly difficult or, for some, even impossible.

What does it sound like?

Often strange or even funny. Let’s look at some examples. Isn’t it just lovely when a German with a strong accent says the following sentence: “The mother talks to the brother about the spectacle they saw in the theater.” Now, read the sentence pronouncing every “th” like the z in buzz. Next, let some Slavic read it. Every “th” is now most probably pronounced as a “d”, every r is expressed a lot stronger and rolled.

Two people from different background talking to each other in their accents.

Take the following phrase: “The strategy was spectacular!” A Spanish Speaker will subconsciously say a slight “e” before saying the words strategy and spectacular, something like “estrategy” and “espectacular.” Let a French say “amazing” or “doing.” He or she will stress the last syllable and add a slight exhaling sound after the g.

Don’t laugh!

I think you get the point. Before I go on, I want to make clear that laughing at a foreign person’s accent is not cool. I have done it in the past and regret it. Folks, don’t be like this. Don’t forget that a foreign accent implies that this person speaks at least one more language, which is something you should appreciate! Foreign accents are one of the best indicators for how rich and fascinating human languages and our ability to talk genuinely are! They bear witness to the abundance of different language groups on our planet and proof that we can learn another tongue!

Anyway, do you understand now, why I wrote that “I could hardly understand him, he spoke with a foreign dialect” could be accurate, depending on the context? If the person in question is a native from your country, then this statement would be to the point. Yet, if we are talking about a “stranger” from another country, then he does not speak a foreign dialect but has a foreign accent!

Why do foreign accents exist?

Why are people in general inept to imitate the exact pronunciation of native speakers? What is the reason foreign accents sound so wrong or funny to us? What factors does your own accent depend on? What are the mechanisms in your brain when trying to utter a word in a new language?

There are so many thrilling questions that arise! You will get to know all of the answers in the second part of this blog series “Why You Have an Accent in a Foreign Language”! Stay with me and get to know yourself and your language skills better!

Why You Have a Foreign Accent in a New Language (Part 1) – The Growth of a Passionate Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! Just give me a bit of time. I got this! I hope I was able to arouse your interest in accents and, most importantly, your own accent.

There will be a loooooot more articles coming! 

Are you asking yourself: “Who is this guy whose words I am reading right now?” You will find some information about me here.

Library shelves with a huge number of books
#4 QuickTip: Watch a video on YouTube in order to identify which foreign letters are difficult for you to pronounce.

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    February 17, 2022 at 17:06
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