Commentary: Why some people lose their accents but others don’t

A colleague of mine from the US, for example, who works in the UK, told me how their child had begun to speak with a standard southern English accent since starting school. The parents were now being taught by their child to speak “correct” English.


For others whose accent does not seem to change, it could be because they feel secure in their identity, and their accent is very much part of that identity – or that preserving the difference is valuable to them. They may not even be aware of how much their accent means to them.

If a speaker has what most deem to be a desirable accent, they might not want to lose the advantage by modifying it.

Whether consciously or not, people have at least some control over their speech when they move home. But brain damage or stroke can, in rare cases, result in foreign accent syndrome. This syndrome results from physical changes that are not under the speaker’s control. Some areas in the brain are associated with producing and perceiving language, and we also have brain regions that control the motor aspects of speech.

If these are damaged, speakers may lose the ability to speak at all or experience changes in the way they articulate sounds because the motor area is sending different instructions to the vocal organs. An extreme example, reported recently in The Metro, describes how a woman, Abby French, from Texas, US, woke up after surgery with foreign accent syndrome.

French claimed that she sounded Russian, Ukrainian or Australian at any one time. Listeners tend to guess at the accent they think the changed speech sounds most like.

In some cases, listeners might discriminate against a person with foreign accent syndrome as they believe them to be foreigners, which shows how much our speech can influence how others treat us. It’s no wonder many people unconsciously protect themselves by adapting their speech to those around them.

Jane Setter is Professor of Phonetics at University of Reading. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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