Phonemes: The Accent Problem

From the time I was small child, I was absolutely fascinated with different cultures and languages. I swear that I got the travel bug at the tender age of five. This was when my family moved to Germany to accompany my father on a three-month business trip. Ever since then I have loved to travel and immerse myself in different cultures. In high school I was so enthralled with the idea of traveling that I applied to be an exchange student and so I ended up spending my senior year of high school in a small town just an hour outside of Barcelona, Spain.

Upon arriving, I had almost no knowledge of Spanish. I was constantly bombarded with the sounds of a foreign tongue, one that I was able to hear and perceive, but unable to understand. I would later learn that this was because I was unable to properly convert the sound waves that I was receiving and perceiving into information that I could understand (Goldstein, 2011). But within just a few days, I began pick up on the similarities between English and Spanish (and quite frankly every other language). As mentioned by Goldstein (2011), all human languages are similar in two very important ways: they are governed by rules (although, a different set of rules) and hierarchical. These two things were what allowed me to begin to learn Spanish. Soon after arriving, I realized that I would need to learn these new rules in order to be able to efficiently communicate with those around me. I also realized that by learning vocabulary, I could slowly build up my language skills to be able to fully able to express whatever I wanted to (Goldstein, 2011). After just three months I was fluent enough to be able to hold a conversation about almost any subject. However, throughout the year I heard the same phrase over and over again, “You speak very well, but you still have a strong foreign accent.” The only problem was that I couldn’t hear the accent myself and I still cannot today. This is due to something called phonemes.

According to Goldstein (2011), phonemes are the sounds that you produce when you speak words. According to Birner (1999), this problem plagues many people who become multilingual later in life due to the fact that some of the sounds made in other languages undoubtedly don’t exist in one’s native language. Interestingly, babies actually begin to babble in the phonemes of all languages when they learn to babble, however by around nine months of age, they begin to babble in the phonemes of the native language that they most frequently hear. By the time a baby is one year old, they loose the ability to distinguish between sounds that aren’t relevant in their own language. After doing some research on this subject, I was happy to find out that this wasn’t an unusual phenomenon that I was experiencing. It just happens to be that I am not as readily able to hear (meaning that I can’t always distinguish between the sounds that I make when I speak and the sounds that native speakers make) and make all of the sounds in Spanish. Luckily though, due to the way in which people perceive words, native Spanish speakers are able to understand the words that I mispronounce (due to phoneme mispronunciations) by relying on the context of the other words used in the sentence (Goldstein, 2011).

Although, my time in Spain may not have lessened my foreign accent, nonetheless, I am ultimately able to achieve the overarching goal of learning a new language: communicating with others.



Goldstein, E. Bruce. “Perception.” Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Third ed. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. 51-57. Print.

Birner, Betty, ed. Why Do Some People Have an Accent? Washington, D.C.: Linguistic Society of America, 1999. Linguistic Society of America. Linguistic Society of America. Web. 30 July 2016. <>.

1 thought on “Phonemes: The Accent Problem

  1. Elizabeth Maria Negron

    That is so amazing to be bilingual growing up. I wish my family taught me Spanish growing up, but my mother only spoke English although she spoke Spanish as well! When younger it is a lot easier to pick up on languages because we have a lot more connections. As we age we go through synapse pruning, the connections that were not made are more likely to fade or die completely (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2015). This also happens because children are meant to make mistakes. When they make mistakes it does not matter much, they just learn from them. As adults we are more afraid to make mistakes because of judgment (Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2015). In addition to what you stated about after nine months old the ability to babble every phoneme adjust to our first language; adults usually have a difficult time pronouncing multiple phonemes in different ways and may also hinder the confidence of someone who is trying to learn a second language. Also as we learned in the memory lesson it is difficult to learn something that we don’t constantly rehearse and study it.

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