What is an accent?

By definition in Sociolinguistics, an accent is a form of pronunciation specific to an individual; it may vary according to social class, geographical residency or origin, ethnicity, the first language of the speaker and much more.

Accents can be annoying, amusing and attractive.

Many people around the world say they are attracted to people who have accents from romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish; while others are more attracted to someone with a genuine Irish accent, particularly from the South.

Personally I am very bad with accents! Despite the fact that I have studied many languages in my life, and that I have been brought up bilingual from birth, I have never mastered the art of faking accents and sometimes I have difficulty distinguishing them. I used to have a standard, correct accent, especially in my own language, without any influence from the dialect of my region. And now? Thanks to years spent living abroad, I have lost any hint of a specific accent and instead have acquired a general one that I seem to use for every single language.

Unlike me, my dad has always been great with accents! I remember long car journeys with him, during which he would be speaking with his clients and he would acquire, just for that brief moment, their accent. While he could go through many variations, and still can, my only ability seems to sound South-African when trying to sound Welsh!

What would you say is the hardest accent to understand? For me the worst is Australian. I can understand an Australian person while speaking to them face to face, but I have difficulty grasping a whole sentence when listening to recordings, especially during English exams I remember thinking “I wonder where they find these people, I swear that can’t be English!

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Generally though, I am otherwise able to understand anyone who talks with me, how about you?

Pronunciation has also always been regarded as a difficult barrier to break through when learning a foreign language. Many people, for fear of being questioned or laughed at, miss the chance to learn a language. This is a shame, especially seeing as not every native speaker in one country has the same intonations and accents as the next!

I have always been led to believe that sometimes if a child is exposed to a certain accent and language during key times in his or her development, they are able to acquire the accent faster, mastering it at an early age.

In my case, despite the chances afforded to me, this clearly wasn’t the case; I acquired just the language ability and developed my own, unique multilingual accent. Whilst my mother (from Brazil and fluent in Italian), sounded perfectly Italian to me as a kid, as I grew older I began to recognise her accent, which sounds very weak to me and my dad, maybe because we are used to it.
On the other hand, I know people who, despite having only learned a foreign language in adult life, have managed to master the accent of the language; acquiring it even just through long conversations. That’s not facilitated by the resemblance between language 1 and language 2, but rather it is due to a genuine mechanism in the speaker’s brain that activates areas connected to our speech apparatus. This is considered nearly impossible, nearly.