What is the Science behind Accents?

Sometimes, the easiest way to tell where a person belongs is by their accent – even if you speak the same language. Accents can tell a lot! Although they both speak English, people from the Southern United States sound nothing like those from the United Kingdom. Accents have distinguished human beings throughout history. And the interesting thing is that not just certain words but a group of people laugh, grunt, and talk in different ways as well.

But what is the science behind accents? Let’s discuss in this article.

What is An Accent?

In broad and simple terms, your accent is the way you sound when you speak any language. There are two types of accents. One is a ‘foreign’ accent that occurs when a person speaks a language using some of the rules or sounds of another. For example, if a person is facing difficulties pronouncing some of the sounds of the second language, they might substitute with similar sounds that occur in their first language. This will sound wrong or foreign to the native of that language.

The other kind of accent is how different groups of people speak their native language in various accents. Their accents are determined by where they live and what social groups they belong to. However, this doesn’t mean that a person must belong to a specific area to get its accent. They can grow to share a way of speaking or accent if they live in close contact. This will differ from the way other groups in other places speak.

For example, you may notice that someone has a Texas accent, although he isn’t a resident of Texas. You may notice a change in accent because it might be different from the way you speak. In reality, everyone has a distinctive accent in someone’s point of view.

When Do We Get an Accent?

We get our accent embedded into our brains from as early as six months of age – way before we start to speak. Babies have a great ability to imitate and make any kind of sound they hear. That is the reason why children can learn multiple languages even if these languages are opposite to each other. They also pick up on pronunciations ofcertain words and even expressions based on the people they are learning to speak from, which are usually their parents.

Moreover, at some point or another, we lose the ability to hear and speak certain words. This is the reason why it gets quite hard to learn a new language when we are older. However, this ability isn’t gone forever and can be trained with serious dedication and patience.

Why Do Foreign Speakers Have Trouble Pronouncing Certain Sounds?

We have trouble speaking sounds that don’t exist in our language(s) that we first learnt as a child. The interesting thing is that humans are born capable of perceiving and producing all of the sounds of all human languages in the world. In infancy, a baby begins to learn in his young age that what sounds are important and which ones to disregard.

By the time an infant is a year old, he has learned to ignore most sounds that don’t matter in his language. The older he gets, the harder it becomes for him to have a good grasp of the sounds that are part of a different language.

For example, German speakers who are learning English might have trouble with the sounds at the beginning of the words ‘wish’ and ‘this’, because these sounds don’t exist in their language. So, they pronounce these words as ‘v’ and ‘z’.

On the other hand, English speakers who are learning German might face difficulty while speaking German words like schöne (‘beautiful’) and müde (‘tired’) because these words contain vowel sounds that do not exist in English. So, English speakers tend to speak these words with their English accent, which sound wrong to native German speakers.

In the same way, native Japanese speakers have trouble with the English and r sounds. That is because, in their language, they cannot distinguish between these two sounds. And this is why they have a hard time hearing English and speaking the right word at the right time. For them, it is quite hard to distinguish between some English words, such as light and right.

Why Are Some Sounds Harder To Pronounce Than Others?

Depending on whether we are talking about our first or second language, it might get hard to pronounce some words than others. For example, in English, the consonants that children acquire first are p, m, n, h, and w, while the last ones to be mastered are z, j, v, and the two ‘th’ sounds (as in ‘thing’ and ‘this’). In most cases, all of the sounds of a language are acquired by people before they hit puberty.

All in all, it seems quite challenging to overcome the tendency to keep using the sounds from your language while pronouncing certain words. And this is the reason why your native language causes a hurdle in your efforts to learn the new language.

Which Languages Are The Hardest To Learn?

There is no fixed answer to this question because it depends on several different things. Children acquire their native languages without any problem, regardless of how hard that language may seem to others. However, learning a new language later in life is a different matter. While some languages have complex sound patterns or sentence structures, others can have far more complicated word-building rules.

But despite all these complexities and differences, researchers haven’t yet found any particular language or group of languages to be more difficult or complicated for everyone.

However, the level of difficulty of learning a new language can also be determined by how much it has in common with the language(s) that you already speak. Learning a new language that is closely related to your native language can be easier than learning one that is quite different. For example, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese languages are all descended from Latin. Hence, they are closely related. And a speaker of one language can learn any of the others easily.

Similarly, Dutch, German, and English are also closely related because they are all descended from an earlier language called Germanic. Therefore, it would be comparatively easy for the English natives to learn Dutch or German than Japanese or Urdu.

However, learning a new language that is closely related to your first language might also have some drawbacks. For example, speaking the language that you are trying to learn can result in interference from your native language, which would ultimately cause you to make mistakes.

In short, no language can be said to be hard to learn than other languages or group of languages. All languages are easier for infants to learn because they grow up imitating and grasping all the sounds from the very start. It is only those of us who grew up speaking a different language find it difficult to learn and speak some other language.

Learning New Languages

Learning new languages such as Chinese, Urdu/Hindi, or Turkish, however, brings more difficulties because these are not at all closely related to English. For example, in Chinese, a word is made up of not just vowels and consonants, but also ‘tone’ or ‘pitch’ with which it is uttered. A syllable ma can have three different meanings in Mandarin.

  1. Ma uttered, with a high tone, means ‘mother.’
  2. Ma uttered, with a low rising tone, means ‘hemp.’
  3. Ma uttered, with a high falling tone,means ‘scold.’

So, the words of such a language are very hard for an English native speaker to master.

Final Verdict

Everyone has an accent that differs from area to area. Interestingly, there are 160 distinct English dialects throughout the world and a copious amount of accents within primarily English speaking countries, such as the US and the UK.

And one more thing that you might not believe – accents aren’t only for the people! Researchers have found that animals, such as gibbons sing songs based on their group, and goatsmake different sounds with different accents, depending on where they live.