Language research has documented that people tend to draw inferences about speakers based on how they talk. These often implicit inferences can occur in the blink of an eye and can affect how smart we think someone is, how much we like them, and more. This is also the case for the non-native accents typically present in speakers who learn a new language later in life.
Linguistic research suggests that these accents are strongly shaped by the speaker’s first language that they learned growing up. New research from an international collaboration between the University of Rochester and universities in Germany and Holland sheds light on just how strong these effects can be. This work, which was conducted by lead author Job Schepens as part of a Fulbright fellowship to the University of Rochester, is the first to evaluate these effects on a large scale and may lead to novel methods of instruction for adults learning to speak foreign languages. The results of the study were published in the journal Cognition.
This strong effect of a learner’s first language seems to be almost entirely driven by how similar the learner’s first language is to the language they are trying to learn.
The study suggests that a large proportion of the perceived non-nativeness of a learner is simply due to the language they grew up with, and this factor is entirely out of their control.