Accents are an auditory clue to an individual’s background. From the first utterance of sound, accents tell others where a person is from, what languages they speak, and who they spend time with. Whether you love your accent or hate it, having one is an inescapable part of speaking. We pick up our accents effortlessly in childhood; however, once we become adults the task of replacing a native accent with a different one becomes more of a challenge. What is it that makes accents so hard to shake?

What Exactly Is An Accent?

An accent, as described by the American Speech Language Hearing Association, is the unique way that speech is pronounced by a group pf people speaking the same language. Accents exist even in the animal world, with goats and pigeons sounding differently depending on where they live. Regional accents explain why an individual from New York is likely to sound much different than someone from Mississippi or London.

According to Dr. Christina Schelletter, head of English Language and Communication at the University of Hertfordshire, foreign accents come about as a combination of “non-native speakers trying to substitute their native sounds for non-equivalent sound in the target language,” and this results in a difference in stress, rhythm, and intonation among the two languages. “There are individual differences in terms of how strong an accent is, but overall, age and length of exposure of the second language very much contribute to the accent,” Schelletter told Medical Daily.

Why Losing An Accent Is So Difficult

Our accents are engraved into our brains from as early as 6 months of age, Smithsonian Magazine reported. The baby begins to draw a map of the sounds he hears, and “that map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated … until eventually they are almost ineradicable,” Patricia Kuhl, director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning at the University of Washington, explained to the online publication. At some point, we lose the ability to make certain sounds and, eventually, we lose the ability to even hear them, io9 reported. Thankfully, the human brain is incredibly adaptable, and with enough practice and concentration, the ear can be trained to pick up new accents as easily as the infant ear was able to.

Regardless of the amount of speech exposure, the success with which an individual is able to lose an old accent and adopt a new one differs largely from person to person. Schelletter explained that this may have something to do with “musicality.” Learning a new speech accent requires “tuning in to the sounds, stress and intonation of the other language,” she said. This is why adopting a different accent for a language you are fluent in is easier than adopting an accent for a foreign language.

Schelletter also suggests musicality may explain why some people are better able to lose their accents than others.  For those who are truly determined to trade one accent in for another, accent modification classes are available. These classes are focused on changing sound pronunciation and stress, rhythm, and intonation of speech, and also helping the student with appropriate word choice.

Pros And Cons Of Adopting A New Accent

Accents help us to feel more connected and aid in communication. Even if you are “just putting on an accent,” it helps people from mixing up similar-sounding words to identify words that might otherwise be pronounced unrecognizably, io9 reported. To be put more simply, it takes less energy for others to understand you and, therefore, the communication is able to flow uninterrupted.

On the other hand, accents play a major part in one’s personal identity. The mass majority of us speak in a way that identifies where in the world we have come from, and equate losing an accent with losing our culture. Not everyone agrees with this opinion, however. In a paper published in the Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Dora Joseph, a student at the University of Massachusetts, explains how she felt losing her French accent had no effect on her personal identity. “I think bits and pieces of the American, French, and British culture equated to a unique me I was happy and comfortable being,” Joseph wrote.