If you learn a new language as an adult, or if you learn it as a child from non-native speakers, you will have an accent. There is a scientifically proven reason behind this. Each language has phonemes (basic sound units) specific to it. You can discern only those phonemes that you are exposed to as a baby. By the time you are about eight months old, it is already too late for your brain to pick up new phonemes. Without the complete set of phonemes of a language, an accent, however slight, is unavoidable.

You may wonder how they figured out a thing like that. How do they know that the cutoff age is eight months? Well, they did some experiment on Japanese babies of various ages, exposing them to the English sounds R and L. Babies younger than eight months would show recognition when the sound is switched. Babies older than that wouldn’t. Because of their lack of exposure, they are functionally deaf to the difference between R and L sounds.

Once at CLEO, Cornell, I was talking to this Japanese-American intern at our experiment. This kid, of course, had no accent (by which I mean he had an American accent). We were discussing a highly-placed and extremely smart Japanese colleague of ours, who did have an accent. The kid was telling me that the older Japanese guy wans’t trying hard enough to lose his accent. I was too young at that time to realize that he was in fact complaining about my accent, and my lack of industry in losing it.

Having learned English in India from Indian teachers, I sport an accent in the language thick enough for Russell Peters to make me the butt of his jokes. Prolonged exposures to native phonemes in other countries may have smoothed out some of the rough edges in my speech, but the missing phonemes are still missing, and it takes a conscious effort to simulate them while speaking. But I fancy I’m no longer totally deaf to them; I do hear the difference between say V and W, and S and Z most of the time these days. I mean, it is not everyday that I catch myself saying, “Wery vell,” but I still have a hard time deciding whether the phases of the moon wax and wane, or vax and vane. And the French “Voila” is still a killer.

Russell Peters, in one of his shows, wondered why his Indian audience laughed at his jokes, given that the punch line usually involved a poke at the way they speak. He came up with this theory — every Indian believes that he himself doesn’t have an accent. They seem to think that there is only one Indian with an accent that Mr Peters makes fun of, probably the same guy who shits in front of airplane doors to give that welcome-to-India signature aroma. His words, not mine.

Photo by kassy.miller cc