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As the title says, are there any linguistic differences between accents acquired from birth/childhood and accents ued by adult language learners who speak the language fluently, but still with a pronounced accent? Can native speakers identify which accents are native and which are developed by adult learners?

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  • I know a few high level ESL speakers who are very articulate in English, but all of them have traces of the accent of their first language. It might not be obvious all the time but it will show up here and there. Some people have an accent that is so slight that many native speakers don't even notice until some linguistic slip tips them off and they start listening for it. I guess if a person had a real talent for mimicry, and learnt a second language to a very high level, they might eventually be able to pull off a native accent - but that situation is going to be extremely rare.
    – user23078
    Apr 6 '19 at 15:39
  • @Minty from my understanding, pretty much only children and younger teenagers can pick up another (native) accent perfectly. My question though is rather if there are a difference in the nature of native accents and accents that is influenced by the speakers native tounge.
    – monoceres
    Apr 6 '19 at 15:47
  • Don't forget - there are also suprasegmental features, although it's not quite clear how broad your understanding of "accent" is. The fundamental difference is, naturally, L1 transfer - in the case of L2 phonetics.
    – Alex B.
    Apr 6 '19 at 15:58
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An "accent", which is not a technical linguistic concept, generally refers to some deviation from a social norm, and unless you have e.g. the speech of the Queen as your guide, knowing exactly what constitutes that norm can be very difficult. In the context of American speech, "southern accents" are not the standard, nor are northern dialects (Chicago, Minnesota, Buffalo). Given that, I think your question has to come down to asking whether – given a target social standard of pronunciation – do people growing up in that environment acquiring that dialect as their first language pronounce things differently from adults who learn the same dialect as a native speaker?

Obviously in the case of L2 acquisition there is a vast continuum in how well L2 speakers acquire local norms of pronunciation, so you would want to only consider those speakers who have achieved very high phonetic fluency in the target language. I know a guy who migrated to the US from Israel as an adult, and he has an impeccable New York accent, to the point that other New Yorkers (not linguists) have commented on how he sounds just like a native speaker. I also know people who "have foreign accents" (Japanese, Spanish, Norwegian), but these are native-foreign accents, that is, they are the result of a local modification of pronunciation norms, arising from there being very many speakers of the dialect / foreign language and a high degree of bilingualism. Although most if not all second-generation Japanese are native speakers of English, their dialect is/was detectable.

I conclude that native speakers can make educated guesses as to whether a person is a native speaker vs. L2 speaker, but not always. If you are not familiar with the target dialect, your odds of guessing right are decreased.

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    I don't think you will find many linguists who agree that an accent is "some deviation from a perceived norm". That would imply that people whose speech is close to that norm have no accent.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 6 '19 at 18:24
  • Accent not being a linguistic concept (it's a popular one) I wouldn't expect linguists to agree. That's why non-linguists say things like "he speaks without an accent", and why linguists talk of dialects.
    – user6726
    Apr 6 '19 at 18:41
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    This linguist would say that "accent" is just another term for "phonological idiolect" (though some people include local lexical items like pop and soda in "accent"). That is, the way somebody sounds that one remarks as different from one's own (naturally accent-free) pronunciation. This is true for everybody; they all speak the correct, standard way, and hear any recognizable difference as "having an accent". The question is whether the "accent" identifies the speaker as being out-group or in-group with regard to some important social group.
    – jlawler
    Apr 7 '19 at 21:59
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    As for the difference between foreign and local, that's basically the difference between native and non-native. Non-native accents usually have some of the characteristics of the native language, whatever it was, but that's not true of regional or social accents. George Mason University has a Speech Accent Archive, with both local native and various non-native speakers saying the same English paragraph; each recording is transcribed in IPA. See whether you can distinguish.
    – jlawler
    Apr 7 '19 at 22:03

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