At what age should you start studying a new language to avoid speaking with a foreign accent? For decades researchers have tried to find out if there is an age limit. The most recent studies suggest that there is no critical age. Instead, it seems that the musical elements, intonation or pronunciation of our first language determines the pronunciation of languages acquired later, and this influence increases progressively after childhood.
That is to say, the further a person is from their childhood, the more effort they will need to acquire the correct intonation of their new languages. The good news is that age is not the only factor that influences success.
For example, the similarity of sounds, intonation or rhythm between the speaker’s languages is relevant. If these criteria are very different, it matters if the first language has a greater or lesser amplitude of sounds or a more or less complicated rhythm than the new one. Obviously, a first language with a more complex rhythm or broader set of sounds puts the language learner in a more advantageous position. And pronunciation also depends on how good the student’s hearing, imitation proficiency, and ability to concentrate are.
Multilingual people tend to have an easier time learning the correct pronunciation of new languages and this ability tends to wane more slowly than it does for monolingual people.
Of course, we must not forget how much truth there is to the saying that “practice makes perfect”, and this can also be applied to pronunciation. We should always consider the importance of environmental support and its ability to motivate us.
For example, it is important not to react negatively to a thick accent and instead, to provide practical advice to help a speaker find the right way to pronounce something. In addition to a language teacher, you can consult a speech therapist.
Therefore, the success of a multilingual child at learning a language’s pronunciation correctly does not depend solely on age. Many parents trust that if their child speaks their native language without an accent at a young age, this is a guarantee that they will do so in the future. However, an accent can be negatively affected if the use of the language decreases drastically. If a child who speaks a language at an early age without an accent then forgets the language and returns to study it as an adult, they tend to have much better pronunciation than their peers who had no contact with that language when they were little.
It is also the case that when one language begins to lag behind another, the speaker needs to use more and more energy to concentrate on the correct use of the language, so that sooner or later they will tend towards using stronger intonation, rhythm and pronunciation.
Also, it is not the case that a person with an accent always uses it with the same strength. It is possible that in a more stressful situation the accent increases and conversely, when the speaker is relaxed, they find the energy they need to pay attention to their pronunciation.
But let’s look at the matter from another perspective: from the listener’s point of view. For example, if the listener knows that a language is not the only (mother) language of the speaker, they may perceive a stronger accent than the speaker really has. This feeling of hearing a strange accent even where there isn’t one also depends on the listener’s prejudices. The speaker’s accent can also be perceived as having different intensity depending on the dialect spoken by the listener.
Speaking of accents, not every accent triggers the same emotions. In fact, some accents have a particularly positive effect, such as French, for example, which is even used in advertising in certain fields.
It is important to try to improve pronunciation when we learn new languages and in order to do this, we must take into account the multitude of factors that influence it, and we must not forget that not all of them are controlled by the speaker.