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I was born in Russia and moved to the US at the adolescent and prepubescent age of 12. Before my relocation to the US I had never really been exposed to the English language at large, and after my relocation I was promptly forbidden to speak Russian at home and school for my parents, desperately, wanted me to nail down English fast.

And nail down English fast I did in a sense that I was able to read and write in it quite well after a couple of years of Remedial English, but I was, however, never able to ditch my thick foreign accent and neither have I been to able, up to the present day, to audially comprehend the English language very well.

For example, I cannot watch English movies without subtitles and I have difficulties watching TV, as well, though in all fairness, I have no trouble at all communicating with people I know well, howbeit I still have, sometimes, a hard time understanding strangers when they speak "rather" fast.

And so the second part of my question is: did my parents "screw" me up by forbidding me to use Russian and not speaking to me in the language both they and I knew the best, at that tender age, and instead exposing me to their, at times imperfect and always heavily accented, English thus leaving me semi-lingual or no matter what they did I would still never be able to get down English native-like, at that age?

  • I think you are right. It is a big mistake for parents to speak to their children in a language that they do not command. Here in England you meet lots of Indians who were born in this country, but speak with a strong Indian accent. – fdb Oct 15 '15 at 22:46
  • This is very interesting, I find particularly striking the fact that you still can't watch movies without subtitles. In terms of the accent, I agree that you would've better picked it up from the plentiful native speakers around you. Actually, did you mingle a lot with your American peers from the start, or did you mostly stay in a Russian community for the first couple of years? – Ivan Kapitonov Oct 15 '15 at 23:29
  • I lived in a rather isolated environment, a cottage of sorts with the closest next door neighbor about a mile and a half away and thus I mostly spoke English with my stay-at-home mother, outside of school that is, until I was about 15 and was able to hold a soulful heart-to-heart in English. In fact, I didn't start to mingle with natives until college. I did not watch a lot of TV growing up as well, because I was really big into reading books. And it just so happened that my best friend in school and future wife was from South America and she spoke English with a heavy accent, as well. – user74809 Oct 15 '15 at 23:56
  • well -- probably you've acquired a non-standard accent as a result of that. I mean, it is possible that if you find a linguist who will listen to your pronunciation and help you correct it, it would improve. I think some of my vowels got a notch better this way )) – Ivan Kapitonov Oct 16 '15 at 3:36
  • @fdb, but how do you know that the accent is caused by their parents speaking English to them? Don't you think it has more to do with mingling with peers that have a similar accent, or perhaps a conscious/subconscious desire to speak like the people you have a similar background to? – dainichi Oct 16 '15 at 6:21
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It is not clear why some people acquire native-like competence in the spoken aspects of a second language (pronunciation, word boundary identification, etc.). Age has been suggested as a determining factor and it certainly does play a role but there's enough research to show that it is not an absolute barrier. In short, there is no absolutely critical cut off point after which this cannot be acquired (perhaps with the exception in performance in word identification under conditions of extreme noise - as some other research seems to suggest - but not in real life situations).

Another possibility is gaps in input in the formative stages of acquisition - this certainly seems to be the case with the present case (judging by the comments). Of course, this would be exacerbated by a lack of integrative motivation (the need to fit in with a peer group).

A "thick" accent after a long stay in-country has also been hypothesized as being linked to a strong sense of identity and a link to a number of speakers who speak with a similar accent. This can generally be overcome (or at least mediated) by remedial instruction focusing on accent removal - this is something most English as a second language teacher have almost no training in.

You would also want to investigate possible other underlying difficulties with perception (e.g. make sure your hearing is fine - it may seem fine for normal interactions but have gaps in certain ranges) or cognition (dyslexia has been linked to poor L2 performance particularly when it comes to some aspects of phonology).

To answer the personal part of the question: It is doubtful that your parents 'screwed you up' but their approach may have contributed to your level of competence. This would be combined with other aspects of your situation - such as limited exposure to other speakers. A typical 12 year old transplant should be able to acquire L2 with at worst a slight accent and minimal perceptual difficulties. However, as I noted above, you could look into specialist remediation to overcome at least some parts of your issues. Assuming you watch films in English with subtitles often and are exposed to a significant amount of input in native-speaker English every day, I would say hearing issues are a strong candidate for at least a contributing factor. Otherwise, I would recommend seeking a qualified accent removal coach - try at least a few sessions and see how it goes.

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  • Slicing through all the atrocious jargon, I assume "hearing issues" means "partial deafness". – fdb Oct 17 '15 at 22:14
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    No, I meant hearing issues. There is a whole range of problems that can be a factor in language learning to do with hearing such as auditory processing disorder that that are not well described as partial deafness. That's why a visit to professional audiologist may help. – Dominik Lukes Oct 17 '15 at 22:30

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