Why Do My Children Have Greek Accents When They Speak English?

by expert · 4 comments

A reader asked the following question in the comment section of the article Non-Native Speakers Can Raise Multilingual Children! Here is the answer from our resident expert, Madalena Cruz-Ferreira:

Reader’s Question:
Even though my husband speaks English to my kids with his native English accent, my kids (5 y.o.) have a Greek accent in English, which is the language I speak to them, native to me, and the language of the place we live in. Does anyone know if it is because they hear me speak to my husband in English with a Greek accent (and are thus copying me), or because they are still developing their language/tongues and are being influenced by the environment they live in (and thus they will eventually revert back to a natural English accent)?

Madalena Cruz-Ferreira’s Answer:
Dear Reader,
Here are a few thoughts on your query:

First of all, I see no reason why your children would choose to imitate your accent, and not your husband’s, in one of their languages.

Second, it might well be, as you say, that what you are actually hearing from your children is a developing pronunciation in English, not a Greek one. It is of course difficult to ascertain whether this is so, without access to speech data from your children. Perhaps what you hear from your children sounds Greek-tinted to you because you know what a Greek accent in English sounds like? I wonder whether your children have contact with other speakers of English, besides you and your husband, who use different accents in this language. School/preschool models, particularly peer models, become extremely powerful from around age 3, in uses of language as in everything else. And I wonder whether your children’s Greek accent matches yours.

Third, what language(s) do your children use to each other? Siblings are well known to influence one another in all sorts of behaviour, including linguistic behaviour, so they could be imitating each other — yet another example of peer models taking over adult ones.

Fourth, I understand that your children are twins. Twins are also well known to develop special ways of communicating with each other, which are specific to twins and different from other sibling traits. Perhaps their choice of accent is one way of demonstrating their twin identity and solidarity to the outer world.

Lastly, you mention a “natural English accent”, which tempted me to ask: natural to whom? The way your children will come to use their languages will be their natural way of using them.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


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Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa May 22, 2010 at 1:03 am

This is definitely a phenomenon, I’ve noticed it, too. My daughter is 2.5 but you can already hear aspects of an ‘accent’ in her speech: she aspirates her T’s in Slovak (as in English) and makes vowels into diphthongs (same). You can’t say she’s imitating me, because 1) I speak only English to her, and 2) when I speak Slovak to my husband, I do NOT aspirate my T’s and I use proper vowel values! I do have a slight accent but she is not getting those habits from me. 🙂 As background information, my husband is the only one to speak Slovak to her and we live in UK. She also started aspirating the T’s (and other consonants) after previously pronouncing them correctly, so it seems to be learned or carried over from her improving English. She also tends to make a vocalized consonant non-vocal at the end of a word in English (as in Slovak), which she doesn’t hear from us, either. I knew a Czech-American child who did this several years ago and assumed it meant the Czech mother was speaking accented English to the child, but now I see that is not necessarily so!

I also know an American-Polish family (raised in Austria and Poland) where the daughter speaks with a clear Southern USA accent just like her mother, and the son speaks with a heavy Polish accent just like his father. They are adults now. The mother told me someone called this “patterning”.

I do think that people (*coughmyinlawscough*) are too quick to jump on the “She has an accent!” bandwagon and blame it on the parents’ accents or other parental factors. However, the languages DO seem to influence each other even when kept totally separate in the environment. I’d be interested in seeing some research on it.


2 Madalena Cruz-Ferreira May 22, 2010 at 6:34 am

Melissa, you wrote:
:: I’d be interested in seeing some research on it. ::
I know of two research pieces which deal with the matter of accent in simultaneous multilinguals, that is, those who acquire more than one language at the same time.
One is:
Pearson, B.Z. and A.M. Navarro (1998). Do early simultaneous bilinguals have a “foreign accent” in one or both of their languages? In Aksu-Koç, A., E. Erguvanli-Taylan, A.S. Ozsoy and A. Kuntay, Eds. Perspectives on language acquisition: Selected papers from the VIIth International Congress for the Study of Child Language. Istanbul, Bogazici University Printhouse: 156-168.
You can download it from here: http://www.zurer.com/pearson/bp_refs.htm#downloads
The other one is my own. Please email me about it, if you so wish:
Cruz-Ferreira, M. (1999). Prosodic mixes: strategies in multilingual language acquisition. International Journal of Bilingualism 3(1): 1-21.


3 Corey May 22, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Thank you Melissa and Madalena for information, inquiry and research links! I had no idea that Barbara Pearson had some of her pdfs available there. What a wealth of information you researchers are!


4 anna February 11, 2011 at 4:48 am

My child is seven years old and I spoke to her in English (my native tongue) on and off ( I also spoke to her in Greek). But now I have started teaching her how to read,write and answer back to me in English, although the latter is very difficult for her. Can she become a bilingual? Please help because I have made a mistake which I was unaware from the beginning…
Dire Straits


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