Accents in the minority language

S has just started making the rolled r sound as part of his babbling (still no first words…). He goes RRR RRR RRR over and over and seems quite pleased with himself.  I myself am quite excited about this.  I hope this means his accent will sounds more or less like a native Spanish speaker.

I have met a few children and young people in the last 6 months who, despite being brought up bilingual, still have an English accent when they speak their minority language. I just assumed, if they had only ever heard Spanish or French, from their mum (a native speaker), they they would also speak with the same accent!

I really hope S doesn’t have an English accent when he speaks Spanish! People can usually not tell where I am from when I speak Spanish… so I think – if I can pick up a good accent as an adult, surely he should be able to if he is learning the language from birth?

I wonder if the English accent is because they were in a household where the family language was English? Is there a difference in the acquisition of accents between OPOL and ML@H households? Does anyone have any insights or experience in this area?


13 thoughts on “Accents in the minority language

  1. So interesting! My son definitely has an accent in Spanish. We started OPOL, and I think that is the problem, because he doesn’t speak much Spanish, though he understands it very well. We are gradually switching to ML@H, which I think will help. I think it’s just lack of practice, which then makes him feel self-conscious, which makes him speak it less, and so on.

  2. Hi Tacodelenguas! It’s an exciting time when they first start babbling and it gradually becomes words, isn’t it?! I’m no expert on bilingualism, but I think it stands to reason that kids tend to pick up a non-native accent when they hear others speaking that way. For us, my kids (aged 4 and 6) both sound have fairly native-sounding Spanish and English (each language has the occasional bit of interference from the other language, in terms of grammar and vocab, especially with my little one.) We’re a OPOL family, living in Spain, so my kids hear non-native English at school, and it does sometimes creep into their speech. The other funny thing is that since we live in Spain, and their English comes mainly from me, the telly and books, they do come out with some expressions that don’t seem entirely normal coming from the mouth of a little kid! I had to chuckle today when my 6 year old said something was “astonishing!” (He told me he learned it from The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton!) It’s a constant tug-of-war to pull the minority language up to the level of the majority language (in terms of sounding natural/native), but it’s a great challenge! I look forward to reading more about your journey with bilingualism. ¡Suerte!

  3. Great post! My girls speak Polish, German and Dutch. My big girl is 4 and she definitely has an accent in Polish (she doesn’t roll her R’s for example), but then I heard this is something that even Polish children master quite late. I think her accent in Polish is German but my MIL says that she has a Dutch accent in German. I hope that when we go to Poland an dspend some time with my family, it will get more “Polish”

    • Thanks for reading and for your comment! Glad you liked the post. Unfortunately Mexico is quite far for frequent visits for us… so who know what kind of accent S will turn out with in the end. Hopefully not too English!

  4. Hola! I live in Spain. My daughter speaks spanish from dad and french from mum. She is 3 and a half. She has no accent for the moment. she started speaking quite early and well in both languages. she still doesn’t pronounce the french “R”, either the spanish”RR” (she does like “L”) but I don’t consider it like an accent. Both are difficult sounds for all children bilingual or not. My blog is in french but with things in spanish of course. I think children justs get the accent of what they hear more. My daughter “learns” english at school with spanish teachers and I can hear it when she sings in english ( japi niu yurrr !!).

    • Thanks for your comment. I would also have thought that children pick up accents that they heard… but the child I met have only really heard native Spanish and French but still came out with an English accent!

  5. I agree with Abby, in my experience there are lots of children who have learnt the minority language from native speakers and in the majority of the cases speak with an “accent” influenced by the language of the country.

    I think it has to do with exercising your brain. If you are exercising your brain in English 75% of the time, your phonic muscles tend to keep the memory of the movements you do for that language, and old habits are had to break.

    I know people who acquired a foreign accent as adults just by living in the foreign country a long time. Who in this forum can say that they have kept their native accent pure after an extended stay abroad, if they do, it´s because they either don´t mix with the local people or they spend the whole day speaking their native language. All the people I know who have been in England for a long time have seen their native language influenced by English, even those who don´t speak English that much nor very well.

    There are also the children of parents with strong foreign accents who, even before they go to school or preschool, learn to speak English with the local British accent. Children have this ability to recognise which is the “important” language, that being the language of the majority, of course.

    My own daughter hears most of the time Spanish, French and accented English, and only really has her father as a role model for English (and cartoons) and she speaks with a beautiful posh sounding English, even if my husband´s accents is not posh, it´s just standard… she´s just picked it up from the environment, playgroups, here and there…

  6. Also, Abby, I think that probabilities are that your child or any bilingual child for that matter will speak the minority language with an accent – 80%. This is independently of what you do to improve his accent. Obviously the more you expose him to the language and the more “necessary” you make it for him to speak the language, the more chances he will have a neutral accent.

    However, I must admit that although I don’t hear any accent in my daughter’s Spanish, apparently Spanish people living in Spain do hear one… I don’t know if it’s psychological or if it’s really that I’m missing something… ’cause my experience is that people we would meet and didn’t know she was English, didn’t find anything wrong with the way she spoke, but people who knew she was English apparently were able to hear an English accent….

  7. Great post 🙂 Although we are Polish family we live in UK and our son (4y) is bilingual. We speak just Polish at home and he picked up Polish very quickly (started speaking sentences at age 18mths), we do read him in English if he wants us to and he learns English in pre-school and now school (he speaks fluently now). My English friends said he doesn’t have polish accent when speaks English and they think he sounds very “English” 😉 My polish family and friends said he does have English accent when speaks Polish! I’ve also noticed (although we speak Polish at home all the time) he’s started using English at home more often now since started school. Well not easy rising child with 2 and more languages 🙂

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