Friday, March 9, 2012

Will living abroad give you an accent?

There are generally two types of people who develop an accent while being abroad: people who have lived abroad for many years and people who have visited abroad for many days. The latter have invariably just returned from the UK or Australia (never Mexico, fancy that) and insist that they just "picked it up".

This is going to piss some of you off, but no, they did not just "pick up" that accent. What's worse, when they returned to the US, they sounded like a bloody idiot. In fact, when I return to the US, I sometimes hear people trying to fake British accents and it's gut-wrenchingly painful to listen to. Even in the UK I heard Americans trying to fake a British accent and, for some reason I've never understood, they were almost invariably young women.

Takes a lot of effort to convince this to cooperate
Photo by Michael Glasgow
So do I have a "European" accent? Nope. I've lived here for years and I still sound solidly American. There is one tiny problem I have to worry about: I say toe-mah-toe instead of toe-may-toe. I say flat instead of apartment. In fact, many of my word choices are distinctly British, but that's after living there for years and getting tired of people constantly talking about my choice or pronunciation of words. As a defensive measure, I started using their words, though I could never get the accent. My accent has certainly changed in the years I've lived here, but it's not European, whatever that is.

After leaving the UK, I sometimes had trouble being understood in the Netherlands not because their English was poor, but because they spoke American English, not British English. I've ordered a white coffee and gotten back a latté. I tried to nick a fag and ... well, you can see where this is going. My friends and colleagues got used to my curious mish-mash of English and American words and that was that. Now in France, no one notices at all what words I use, but when I go back to the US, I better not thank someone with cheers instead of thanks lest I want to come off as damned idiot trying to impress people.

So no, if you move abroad, you likely won't get the accent. That's actually OK because many people will adore your local accent. You wouldn't believe how many compliments I've had about my boring, generic mid-west accent. Research on the topic I've read indicates that by the time you're around 20 years old or so (this can vary considerably), your accent is pretty much fixed and it takes a lot of effort and time to get rid of it naturally. Even actors are only deliberately faking it for a short period of time. There are several well-known British actors who use American accents to great effect but fall back to their natural accent when off-camera.

And for that American friend of mine who insisted upon magically having a British accent after two-weeks abroad, suddenly switching to milk in your strawberry-cumquat tea was a dead giveaway.


  1. The difference with you is that although you live abroad you still speak your native language.
    Apparently I now sound like a Brit trying to speak Danish

  2. You didn't mention that if you have a distinct regional American accent (like a S. Texas drawl) it will fade pretty quickly when you live overseas and you will end up sounding as if you from nowhere and anywhere. When we were in Germany a dear friend asked me why I didn't sound like I was from Texas. Did I mention this friend was a long term expat from Jamaica? He had absolutely no trace of a Jamaican accent. All I could do was laugh and ask Why didn't he sound like he was from Jamaica, mon?

    Also I think it depends on age. I notice my kids pick up accents very quickly. One, and only one, of my boys has had a string of British teachers and sometimes sounds very British. Not a one of them sounds like they have ever even visited Texas much less been born there.

  3. I will argue, vehemently (maybe?), that yes, living abroad will give you an accent. It may not change your accent, but accents are a distinctly subjective thing. Simply by being an American in Europe you now have an American accent! One that is indistinct in America. I have a west-coast American accent. On the west coast, no one notices. In Jamaica, people should generally be able to peg me as a Californian if they're paying enough attention. I can, for example, tell if someone is a native northwesterner due to some vowel choices (crick/creek... measure/mayzhur).

    The reason people adapt accents and words is called Convergence (or Accommodation) Theory in Linguistics. Women tend to be more accommodating than men in many cultures, and therefore will adjust more readily when presented with alternative ways of doing things, including speaking. That is, if they can replicate it.

    On the converse, Accommodation Theory has the inverse of divergence. That means that, from a subjective/perception angle, the speaker wants to be distinct from the audience. So they will use different terms or hold to their regional accent more closely when presented with alternatives. Think of a very thick Scottish accent while drunk. This example may not CARE about whether you can understand them. But a Scot can accommodate another accent just as easily as anyone else, but the level of socialisation, in-group/out-group association, and other vastly fascinating psychological and social factors will play into someone's level of accommodation. Think of Tootsie/Hutus: I'm sure they developed distinct ways of talking to create a social club to be able to tell the difference, even if they spoke the same language. Think of the Belgians with French and Frisian and Dutch (is Frisian different than Dutch?). Norwegian and Swedish and Danish, I hear, are practically the same language, but just different accents. I'm not sure of any of this, and I'm playing with fire because I'm challenging the very fabric of identity here, but you get my point.

    So you may think someone 'sounds like an idiot', but they're trying to be accommodating of someone else to best be understood, just like you've done in adapting your vocabulary. You're choosing to stick to your American accent guns; that's fine. But I did meet someone who had moved from DC to London (a woman my age) whose accent 'softened' as she put it to a more British style, even though you could tell she was still American. Accents can change/mix, etc. with various vowel qualities (such as tom-ah-to), or dropping of word-final Rs. It's ok.

    I implore you to adjust your thinking on this.

  4. My wife tells me when I try to repeat German or Danish I do it with a Spanish (Mexican variety) accent.

    Go figure.

  5. I think that this depend on you musical ears. People with musical ears are known to pick an accent quickly, while those without are straggling.

    1. @Shmuel, this is true - and they seem to pick up languages more rapidly too. My spouse is studying Chinese and is doing quite well at it.

      I'm a native NY'er and left the East coast for the West coast in my teen years. I've lived most of my life now on the West coast. When I first moved here people noted my EC accent. Overtime, I guess I lost it but my sister who was 10 years older didn't... though it did soften.

      When I revisit the EC today and spend a number of days there around my relatives or what have you my accent changes and takes on the accent - and when I return to WC my spouse will say, you got your accent back. He's also always says that when I get excited or mad about something my "east coast" will come out more.

      When I lived in the South for 4 years I developed a drawl and if I'm around southern speaking people that drawl will begin to come out a little.

      After being in London and Scotland for a month we both most definitely found ourselves with a teeny accent - though we lost it within a week or so of returning home. So, accents = well you don't have to TRY to pick them up. The younger you are when you go to a place the more likely you are to pick up a stronger accent. The older you are the less likely unless you were native born to the place or had spent considerable time there, at one time.

      I'm a non conformist type and don't care one way or another. As long as I'm speaking "good" English, I'm happy. :)

  6. As a kid I went between living in australian and british communities quite a bit. I finished school in england, and as a late teenager, developed a mostly-british accent. Went back to australia for a couple of months before starting uni, and arrived back with a mostly-australian accent. (I picked up some american english at one point as a result of going to an american school in SE asia, but that's long gone).

    20 years later and I sound maybe vaguely English to Australians, definately australian to british, but my accent does float around depending on who I'm tlaking to. My wife is Scottish, and as noted in other comments, she's lost the regional bits of her accent, but is still definately scottish after a decade and a half away from Scotland.

  7. I am English, but have lived in Australia for 15 years. Over the time I have mimicked the Aussie accent as a joke (Kath and Kim style)but I have also developed a 'twang' quite naturally. My kids are all Aussie, but my oldest daughter still pronounces certain words in an English accent (yoghurt, dance and chance etc) maybe because of my influence, or perhaps a recessive memory of her first 3 years in the UK. When I go home, I get accused of sounding Australian and over here some- not all- hear my English accent. My kids all accused me of faking my English accent when we were on the plane to England- apparently it changed in transit? I have no explanation for this, but it certainly wasn't deliberate. A doctor once told me that pre-puberty, your accent will change according to your environment. Post puberty sets your core accent in stone.

  8. The issue here is that certain people will pick up certain things quicker than others. I, for instance, am from Wyoming originally. I've lived in Texas for years and I speak like a native Texan. People who were born and raised here have no idea that I'm not Texan, including my inlaws. I've spoken to people who are genuinely shocked to find out I was born and raised in Wyoming, who's accent doesn't have a twang or a Southern drawl at all.

    This is the same issue as people learning a foreign language. Some will be terrible at it and couldn't fake it to save their own lives. But, some will be very good at it and it will be second nature.

  9. I spent at least 10 of my 23 years of life between 3 different countries having traveled to a number of others. No matter where I've been, someone always assumes I'm from somewhere else.

    I grew up in the Bahamas but moved to New Orleans when I was about 12. No one could understand my Bahamian accent (even though we probably have the most subtle accent of the entire Caribbean region). My accent eventually changed to a more generic American accent but not necessarily a southern accent by any means. I moved back home 5 or so years later which did not help with my accent. I moved to Canada and then to Sweden and spent quite a bit of time in France and now...I think I have a "Universal" accent. If that means anything... I am able to unintentionally adjust my accent to whomever I'm speaking with. I won't speak like them, but I will speak in a way that they can understand me best.