Accent Mystery

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200910-10Nina (3yr 1mth) now really separates Mandarin and French when speaking to me and to her dad, all the time. It has only started after our trip to China in January (prior to the trip she used dominantly French even she understood Mandarin perfectly). Her vocabulary and the ability to put sentences together (albeit not always correctly) in both have increased tremendously too since the new year. Sometimes when I introduce a new word or concept in Mandarin, she would ask me ‘爸爸怎么说?’  (how would papa say it?). So she’s really getting the idea that Papa and Mama have different ways of saying the same thing. All seem to fit nicely with the major linguistic milestones for multilingual kids.

Except when it comes to the Mandarin accent! I have no idea why, but when she speaks Mandarin she has this funny accent that normally only adult-Mandarin-learner would have! Some say it’s French accent. The tonality is almost terrible. For example when she asks a question, instead of just adding a ‘吗‘ at the end of the sentence to form a question, she would change the tone of the last one or two words – exactly how you would form a question in French!

I am quite puzzled. After all, she gets her Mandarin dose mainly from me, a native speaker, from day 1 … No multilingualism literacy I have read so far has mentioned anything like this. Kids are supposed to have native-like pronunciation when they grow up with the language, aren’t they?

With these questions in mind, I asked my fellow facebook group members about their experience and advices. I got some really interesting responses, roughly within the following three categories:

  1. It’s normal (!). As someone puts it ‘This is the case with almost all bilingual children I know. If they speak the mother tongue without accent although they are growing up in a foreign environment, it’s an exception rather than the rule. There are several parents of multilingual children report the similar experience with their children’s accent, to a varied degree. Although I do know bi/multi-lingual children (or grown-up now) speaking their multiple mother tongues with absolutely native-like accent, I am quite relieved that Nina is not the only one with accent.
  2. It’ll get better when they grow older.  ‘Some kids accents become less pronounced as they are growing older’. ‘The more exposed a child is to the language of the environment, the greater the chance they will speak the mother tongue with that accent.’ I am willing to believe that as kids’ language are still developing till a certain age (6, 7 as some claim, although some newer research now tends to claim even close to 10, or ), their pronunciation would continue to develop in a more native fashion, given they continue to receive enough native input.
  3. ‘Oh I have never heard about this’. Well, I haven’t either, before I observed it from Nina!

All these are quite surprisingly positive and reassuring at least. We are not alone! It seems that it’s just a phase, and perhaps a likelihood that Nina will eventually speak Mandarin with a slight accent. I am learning to accept that there are many possible outcomes, although I should still aim and work towards the best one.

The whole thing does get me think and develop another hypothesis: is there such a thing as ‘Intrinsic dominance’ for certain languages (in a language pair), so one is ‘naturally’ more dominant than the other in terms of tone/pronunciation, hence the other language is more likely to be influenced by it? In the case of Nina, would French would be more intrinsically dominant in terms of its pronunciation/tone/pitch/modulation than Mandarin?

See, a multilingual household is never short of questions.

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