Accents. Everyone’s got one. Some of us have more than one depending on the language we are speaking or who we are speaking to.

Here in Luxembourg, accents are an everyday occurrence. They are a signal to others expressing where we come from. Even if physical features make it difficult to ascertain one’s roots, once a person speaks, his/her origins usually become much more apparent. It is for this reason that we sometimes alter our accent to hide where we come from.

This helps emphasize the importance of accents.

More so than most other places in the world, we here in Luxembourg notice and are concerned about accents. That might be because there is such a diversity of languages and manner of speech in such a small place. Hence, some worry about losing their mother tongue accent because they don’t get to use it much. Others concern themselves with being able to learn a new language accent in order to sound more credible. The harsh reality though is that losing one’s accent is unlikely and learning a new one grows increasingly difficult with age.

Children and accents

That last point is perhaps why parents fret so much their children’s accents.

A prevalent place where children’s accents can be influenced is at school. Many parents are concerned when their children’s main teachers are not native speakers. However, the quality of a teacher has little to do with pronunciation. Sure, hearing the adult in the classroom run lessons will influence the child’s accent but that is not as important as how that teacher influences social, emotional, and intellectual development. Besides, the multicultural/multilingual friends with whom our children play also have bearing on accent. I doubt any of us would prevent our kids from playing with other kids just because they speak with an accent. Further, at home the child’s accent resorts back to its original one, maybe with a bit of a new twang but that is part and parcel of living in a cultural cornucopia.

Another accent concern is when our children are learning a new language. While it can be more convincingly argued that having a native speaking teacher in this type of language setting is essential, I am not entirely convinced. What constitutes a native speaker? Some would argue that French speaking Belgians are not true speakers of that language. The same is said by some regarding the English spoken by North Americans.

Nonetheless, being exposed to a more authentic accent in a foreign language is desirable and decidedly more vital for younger children since the window of accent simulation closes as we grow older. Without getting too technical, the ability to mimic the phonemes (sounds) of a language quickly diminishes as a child grows older. Thus, the longer it takes for someone to be exposed to new sounds, the more difficult it becomes to recreate them accurately. The brain’s language circuits get used for something else. Typically, these language circuits are active, albeit decreasingly so, till around twelve years old or so. That means that after this point any new language will be constructed on the basis of the learner’s mother tongue and accent. There is no tabula rasa on which to learn a new language.

Accentuate the positives

Mind you, that doesn’t mean a person cannot learn a language later in life. We see so many adults here taking on a second hand’s worth of languages all the time. It just means that it will become virtually impossible to sound like a native speaker the longer a new language is learned beyond one’s youth.

That is not so terrible. Personally, I am not a believer in accent snobbery, which is little more than a flimsy façade of superiority. In an interdependent world where multilingualism is becoming more commonplace, thereby altering accents (as well as diction and syntax), it is better to accentuate the positives of living and learning in a multicultural and multilingual environment and alleviate negatives of a less-than-exact accent.