What accent will your child have when they speak your heritage language (or the local language)? For many people, this is an important issue. After more than thirty years teaching English as a foreign language, and as an English person who lived in Ireland for eleven years, I understand that the accent you have is quite significant, and for many different reasons.
Firstly, your accent identifies your ethnicity and in many languages associates you with a social class. In some places your accent may not be seen in a positive light, such as my English accent when I lived in The Republic of Ireland in the nineteen-eighties.
For many parents and even learners of foreign languages, speaking with the ‘wrong’ accent is perceived as a failure. I have met many children of native English speakers who speak English very well but have a Spanish accent. I have met others who are indistinguishable from a native speaker.
In the blog post Is there a critical age for learning a language?, I spoke about the concept of the ‘Critical Period’ Hypothesis, which tries to identify the latest age at which a child can speak a language at a native level and with a native accent and intonation patterns. Studies of sequential or successive bilinguals suggest that after the age of ten or eleven, children are not able to monitor their own accents well enough to perfect them. I have met only three Spanish people (in thirty years) who learned English as a second language as adults and spoke with native accents, and two of those have lived in England for many years. This clearly reflects their natural ability rather than just motivation.
What’s the key to talking with your accents?
Because high exposure from birth is the key. If they have enough exposure to a language, your child will speak it with a native accent, because that is what children do in the heritage language country.
Also, don’t be afraid to gently correct now and then if necessary. Make it into a game for example. “Go on, Say “politician” again just like me!” “Again!” or when they are older say “Actually, we’d say it like this.” Even native speakers in their own country help their children. You can too, just do it gently and indirectly, and occasionally explicitly. It’s how you do it that is important.
But remember that you can speak with a foreign accent and still speak a language perfectly.
The point is that children do have the ability to speak your language with your accent if they receive enough input from you or other sources, be that your family or children or teacher at a bilingual or international school.
At the very least, if you had doubts, as parents, it is good to know that it really is possible for your child to speak with your native accent.
For more detailed information and advice, check out the book on Amazon: The 5 Key Strategies of Successful Bilingual Families.