Noga Martin brings up some important points in her recent blog on Anglos’ Hebrew skills. Maybe a lot of them aren’t putting in the effort to master the language. Maybe too many of them aren’t trying at all. But she falters when she says they need to try to nail the Tzabra accent. Accent training is a completely different discipline and requires learning a completely different set of skills.
I’m an optimist. Language research always surprises us. For decades, researchers have revised the earliest point when babies can actually understand what people around them are saying (the most recent estimates spoken of in my courses are between 4.5 and 5.5 months, but here’s a chart).
But the “Critical Period Hypothesis” is still strong when it comes to learning new languages. Noga said it herself that past a certain age (which is actually in the 12-14 range), it’s improbable someone will master a new language, let alone a native accent.
A lot of people do try and most of the time it doesn’t work. I naturally try to speak with an accent, but often times I cannot master certain sounds and it becomes a problem communicating. In conversation, speakers tend to modify their listening to fit the pattern of their conversation partners. I’ve been explicitly dropping the accent a lot lately, just so that I can focus on the substance rather than the style.
If you are an Anglo, you’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon speaking with friends from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand; you’ve additionally heard Israelis, Frenchmen and others speak English with variety.
I’ve sat in on courses for Spanish, French, German, and Arabic; I dabbled in Aramaic (ancient and modern) and Dutch; I finished my linguistics program with a couple courses entitled “Language & Psychology” and “Language Acquisition.” The clear consensus is that accents are more difficult than syntax and semantics. Accents are a distraction if you aren’t getting thorough instruction in them. Actors and spies go through extensive training to master accents. If you aren’t pretending to be from another country natively, it’s more important to focus on the grammar, vocabulary and learning how to be creative with your language in ways that are appropriate for literature, public speaking and just sounding awesome when out with your brand new, native friends.
Countries vary in their expectations of foreigners to speak the language; they expect effort as a matter of respect. You touch on this. But rarely, if ever, do natives expect foreigners or immigrants to master an accent. It’s incredibly difficult and everyone knows it. For new immigrants to Israel, unless you can master that devastatingly difficult “reish,” no one is going to look down on you for rolling your American “R” or trilling your Spanish “Rr.” The effort you’ve invested to communicate with Israelis, on their own terms (quite literally), is both respectful and impressive enough.
One final note: It is incredible if you can master a new accent. It isn’t easy. It’s not as though someone can imitate an Irishman or an Indian for an entire day beyond a couple of nationality jokes. If you would like to learn the Israeli accent and literally perfect your new language skills, it’s a great challenge and I encourage you to push forward. But don’t move too quickly. You have other priorities to wrap up first.