Some people believe that if you learn another language as an adult it is almost impossible to change your accent. The assumption is that the speaker is not able to hear the differences between their accented speech and the way the native speakers sound. The reasoning is that if they could hear the difference then they would automatically make the correction and not need accent training.
This assumes that an adult learner has a limited capacity to learn new information. If that were the case then why would anyone bother to take singing lessons? Why bother with tennis lessons or learn any new skill for that matter? If they were capable of singing better or returning the ball wouldn’t they just do it naturally?
First let’s examine some reasons why people speak with an accent. Primarily, the pronunciation patterns from their native language are carried over to their second language. For instance, a typical mistake for native Spanish speakers is to add an “e” to words that begin with “s” such as “estrike” for “strike”. Some sounds in English simply don’t exist in other languages, like the sound “th”. So words like “think”, “father”, or “breath” may be difficulty to pronounce. Lastly, many English words are not pronounced as they are spelled. How would a student know how to pronounce the words “island”, “Wednesday” or “receipt” without hearing it pronounced correctly a few times?
Another reason people may speak with an accent is that they have learned their second language from a teacher who has the same accent. In some situations, English language learners become English language teachers with limited experience beyond learning the language from a book. Their pronunciation practice opportunities may have been limited and without the proper feedback. This would reinforce incorrect speech habits.
There is also the issue of confidence and identity. Rarely are adult speakers completely unaware that their speech sounds different from native speakers. They may not be able to pinpoint the difference, but they know it’s there. This lack of specific knowledge makes it difficult for them to make the necessary corrections. They are self-conscious about their speech, so they shy away from speaking in front of native speakers, thus making it harder to get the feedback they need to improve their pronunciation. Speakers of a second language may also have a hard time giving up pronunciation patterns that are comfortable and familiar to them, possibly feeling like they are turning their back on their native language or culture if they adopt different pronunciation habits.
It can be a complicated mix as to why someone speaks with a heavy accent, even after living in one’s adopted country for years. Not everyone learns English under the same circumstances or with the same motivations. It is an oversimplification to assume someone is not capable of learning new speech habits, reasoning that they would have done so on their own if it were possible.
Let’s refer back to the tennis analogy that I learned from one of my instructors. If somebody taught himself to play tennis by watching YouTube videos and through trial and error practice, he may know how to play the game, but he probably picked up some bad habits along the way. He may have learned from someone who passed their bad habits on to him, or, at the very least, didn’t receive feedback on how to improve his stroke and win points. Once he competes against someone who knows how to really play, he will find himself at a disadvantage.
If that same person works with a qualified tennis coach, he has real potential to improve his game. His coach can observe his moves, take notes, identify specific areas that need improvement and teach him techniques to actually win a game of tennis. The same is true for an accent trainer. A certified accent trainer has the expertise to identify specific error patterns in a person’s pronunciation, make the person aware of them and teach new speech habits. Just like practicing a new tennis stroke, accent training requires a lot of repetition and qualified feedback until it becomes as second nature as a new backswing.