Insider/Outsider Accent And Adaptation

12 August 2015.     TV = 1182.9 hours.     AUA: reading/writing classes = 58 hours, advanced class = 1203 hours, total class time = 2199 hours; currently at reading/writing level 2.

In this scene from episode 2 of มงกุฎดอกส้ม (mong kut dawk som) wife number one, addressing her Thai-born son with an obvious mixture of pride and affection, expresses concern that he’s too Thai — this includes his speaking abilities — and that he’s losing his Chinese roots. Note that she speaks Thai with a heavy Chinese accent, whereas he just sounds like a normal Thai.

I’ve heard stories of Americans who settle into a different part of the U.S. than where they were born and, without intending to, end up acquiring the local accent.

But I’ve known foreigners — not native English speakers — who end up in the U.S. longterm and never lose their accents. In some cases the accent is so mild that it’s barely noticeable and gives no hint as to where they’re from, while at the other extreme the accent is so heavy that they’re sometimes difficult to understand.

Is it that picking up a regional accent of your native language is easy to the point where it happens without trying, whereas picking up the accent of a foreign language can be really difficult and maybe never really fully happens for most adult learners?

But years ago I visited a relative of mine in Europe. He was American born and English was his native language, but he’d been living in a French-speaking country for a number of years. I stayed with him for about a week and for the first couple days his English sounded funny — he had an accent, and if I hadn’t known who he was I’d have assumed he wasn’t a native English speaker! Then over a number of conversations his “foreign accent” faded away and he started sounding American again.

Is this a purely phonetic issue, or is it more psycho-social?

I’ve had times that I’ve said something in Thai and I can hear myself sounding less Thai (and more American) than I could. In other words, I know I could have done better — but for some reason I didn’t. Well, using a language is complicated, and there are a lot of aspects of Thai that I’m only partially-developed in, so I guess it’s not surprising if accent/pronunciation slips sometimes.

But sometimes I’ve thought I caught a bit of a thought or feeling in the back of my mind: the wrongness (maybe not quite the right word) of sounding Thai, or at least of not sounding like an English speaker. Some kind of reluctance to push things phonetically too far beyond the bounds of English.

In a certain way, learning a language is joining a group, and a specific accent and speech pattern can mark you as a member. It seems to me that as little kids grow up and acquire language, what they’re really doing is trying to fit in, be like everyone else, and gain acceptance as a member of their society. Maybe social conditioning dictates that you don’t act in ways that would make you seem like an outsider?

But then what happens when as an adult you try to enter into, at least on a linguistic level, a group that’s other than your own? Can you set aside your old habits when it comes to speaking the new language, or do the old allegiances never fully loosen their grip?

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