As an accent reduction instructor living in NYC (the city with the largest foreign-born population in the USA), I’m constantly surprised at how many myths surround accents. This article will give the truth behind the myths of why people have a foreign accent when speaking American English.

Myth #1: “I was born with this voice”

Truth: No you weren’t!

At birth, infants have the ability to hear and understand sounds from any language, and the potential to pick up native-like speech of any world language. At only 6 months old, they slowly begin to lose this ability. This is why the absolute ideal time frame in which to pick up an accent and native-level language proficiency is below the age of 3.

You may have heard that infants and toddlers pick up new languages and accents like a sponge, and it’s true: the window of time of the critical period of language learning (the time in which a child can most easily pick up a new language) starts closing near puberty. Some even say that the critical period for learning a language’s sound system ends even before puberty. This would help explain why so many people who have perfectly learned all the elements of the English language such as grammar and structure may still retain a foreign accent. By the time a child reaches puberty, they are going to be most comfortable hearing and saying the sounds of whatever language(s) they were exposed to from approximately age 0-10. As such, they will use the sounds from their first language when speaking in any language they learn after that, even though the sounds that exist in their first language may not all be the same as the sounds in their second language. After the age of approximately 10 years old, the ability to effortlessly pick up a new language with a native-like accent decreases, but does not stop! Which leads us to Myth #2…

Myth #2: “Adults can’t change their accents”

Truth: Yes they can!

We now have more research than ever before that shows us that the adult brain is more flexible and open to learning than most people ever thought possible, and human beings can keep learning well into adulthood.

First, let me say that it’s more helpful to think of the “accent reduction” process as learning a new accent rather than eliminating your current accent (so you’ll be able to go back and forth between your original accent and the American accent, if you choose). A major component of learning a new accent is training your mouth and tongue to move in a slightly different way than you are used to. Learning smoothly coordinated muscle movements requires training and practice. Just as adults can learn to swim, or learn the piano, or learn tennis, or take voice lessons to improve their singing, they can learn an American accent. Just like with these other examples, how successful you are—in this case, how close you can come to sounding like a native speaker—depends on a number of factors, including: natural aptitude or an “ear” for accents, age of starting to learn English, and hours per week of training and practice.

Myth #3: “My tongue is too fat OR my teeth are misplaced OR some other physical reason”

Truth: Barring a specific medical condition that negatively affects the structure of your mouth (which you would already know about), if you do not have any problems with pronunciation in your first language, then your accent is almost certainly not caused by anything physical.

Here is what causes accents: it is your spoken English being filtered through the sound system of your first language. As mentioned above, your mouth is most comfortable making the sounds of the language you heard as an infant or young child. Yet, the sounds of American English and the sounds of your first language or dialect may not necessarily all be the same. So you automatically revert to making the make the sound you’re most comfortable saying instead. For instance, many languages don’t have “th” as a distinct sound, whereas English does. So native speakers of languages that don’t have “th” will often substitute the “s”, “z”, “f”, “v”, “t” or “d” sound for the “th”, thus contributing to accented-sounding speech. They may not even hear the difference between, for example, “thing” and “sing”, which is why ear training is also a key aspect of accent reduction lessons.

Myth #4: “I’m just bad at this type of thing”

Truth: Chances are, if you’re having difficulty with pronouncing sounds in English or if you are frequently misunderstood, it’s because no one ever taught you all the rules of pronunciation.

I have worked with people from all over the globe, but regardless of country of origin, their summaries of their English classes are similar: they were taught grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing in school, but they did not focus and speaking and they certainly did not learn all the details and rules of American English stress, intonation, and pronunciation. Accent reduction lessons (sometimes called accent modification or accent neutralization) can help you learn the rules, train your ear, and change your speech to sound as clear and close to native-like as possible.

Myth #5: “I’ll figure it out just by being in the country for a long time”

Truth: If you’re an adult, merely being in the same country as native speakers will not, in and of itself, make you sound more like a native speaker.

This is rather similar to thinking that you can become better at playing the piano just by having 3 roommates who are concert-level pianists: sure, it doesn’t hurt, but the only way for you to truly improve is to learn the rules and sounds of the unfamiliar accent for yourself, and then practice, practice, practice.

a room full of pianos

In other words, even if you lived in this room full of pianos, and were surrounded by concert-level pianists 24/7/365… you still would not learn how to play the piano unless you practice the piano yourself!

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