A matter of identity


in Beyond the Basics, In Your Head

To acquire a new language, you need to read it and hear it, not study it. And what you read or listen to must be easy and interesting enough for you to become fully engaged, or involved, in it. In fact, it should be so easy and interesting that you forget that it’s a new language.

The input you receive from reading and listening is the essential ingredient for language acquisition. But there are other ingredients – for example, the beliefs and feelings you have about yourself, your new language, and its culture – that affect your ability to acquire and use a new language.

Identification is an ingredient that plays an important role in language acquisition and use. Let me give you a very simple definition to begin with – to be like or become like another – and then we’ll allow the definition to grow throughout the rest of this article. We’ll focus on how identification affects your ability to acquire language and how it affects the sound of your new language, your accent.

Joining the club

Club, or community, membership is an idea introduced a number of years ago by Dr. Frank Smith. The concept is simple – you improve your ability to acquire and use a new language when you identify with the community of people who use the language well, when you see yourself being or becoming a member of that community.

Joining a community happens when you begin to think of yourself as a member – for example, of the community of fluent English users from your country – and when you begin to expect to become like them – fluent, comfortable, confident. It happens when you look at other community members and say, “Hello, friends, I’m just like you (or I will be soon).”

Expectation by itself doesn’t guarantee success – you still need the input, the primary ingredient I described earlier. But expectation makes success possible. Doing the opposite – thinking “I’ll never be like them; I’ll never be a member of that community” – almost always leads to negative results.

Adrian’s story illustrates how identification with a community of one – his grandpa – helped him acquire Italian and influenced the sound of his Italian.

Adrian’s story – identifying with his grandpa

Several years ago, while traveling across Italy by train, Adrian enjoyed a conversation with another young man on the train. After a while, the young man turned to Adrian, commented on his accent, and asked if he came from northern Italy. Adrian explained that he was from Brazil but that his grandparents had come from Modena in northern Italy.

Adrian tells me that he grew up listening to Italian from his grandpa, who was born and raised in Modena. And that the two of them often listened together to one of Modena’s radio stations. Adrian still listens to radio programs from Modena when he can, probably, he says, because he enjoys the accent and loves to listen to it.

Like most boys, Adrian identified with his grandpa, he wanted to be like him. They were friends and spent many hours together. And he identified with his grandpa’s native language, Italian from Modena. As a result of hearing Italian from his grandpa and the radio programs they listened to, and as a result of identifying with his grandpa and the Italian he spoke, Adrian picked up a significant amount of Italian and the sound of Italian from northern Italy.

Gwen’s story – identifying with the people in the new country

Gwen, who has been able to develop a good accent in the new language she acquired says, “I think the reason I do get the pronunciation eventually … is that I have a kind of feeling of wanting to be like the people in the country, and the people I’m associating with … though of course I fully recognize I would never be one.”

“…I have a kind of feeling of wanting to be like the people in the country. I want to become as much a part of that social group as I can, to identify with them as much as possible without losing my personal identity. It’s a very deeply fulfilling kind of thing to be able to do … to relate with them in a way so that they can begin to react almost as if [I] were one of them.”

Gwen emphasizes that, when she identifies with another culture in this way, she doesn’t become a different person or less of herself, and she doesn’t lose her heritage culture. Rather, she says, it’s like adding another dimension to who she is.

Two groups of university students – to identify or not to identify

A recent study of university students in Israel illustrates how much identification can influence accent in a second language. The first group of students, Russian immigrants to Israel, began to study Hebrew when they were 13 or older, after they immigrated to Israel.

The second group of students are members of the Arab minority who grew up and live in Israel. They speak Arabic as their first language and begin to study Hebrew in school when they are seven or eight years old (It’s important to remember that Israel has two official languages – Hebrew and Arabic – but Hebrew is the principal, or main, language.).

The two groups are similar in many ways. And there was a range of accents in both groups. The groups are different, however, when you discover why members of each group had light or heavy accents. The study suggests that the best explanation is the students’ “attitude toward the majority culture and language.”

Among the Russian students, lighter accents were explained by a measure of empathy – the ability to adopt the perspective, or point of view, of someone else. Empathy is an important part of identification. The Russian students immigrated so they could become part of – to identify with – the Israeli culture, and learning Hebrew was part of that process.

The Arab students, understandably, wanted to maintain their Arab cultural identity. They studied Hebrew because it is necessary for daily life in Israel. The researchers report that many of the Arab students “remarked that they maintain their accent in Hebrew precisely because it identifies them as members of the ethnic minority, and that they would not like to be misidentified as belonging to the majority Jewish ethnicity.”

The study concludes that light accents among the Russian students were explained by their desire to identify with the culture and become part of it. On the other hand, heavier accents among the Arab students were explained by their desire to maintain their Arab identify. Both choices are reasonable, but each choice has its consequences.

These stories make an important point: success in acquiring a new language and in developing a good accent depends in large part on how much you identify with the language and the people who use it.

What will your story be?

If you want to become fluent in English, one ingredient is essential – maximum exposure to easy, interesting English by reading and listening. This one ingredient feeds all aspects of language development, including your sound, or accent.

Beyond the input from reading and listening, you can enhance your ability to acquire and use English by identifying with the growing group of people in the world who use it well and by identifying with the language and its culture.

Acquiring a new language is more than developing a new set of skills. Acquiring a new language opens a door to a new world – the world of the new language and its culture, a world that includes those people who use the language well. I encourage you to walk through the door. Enter the new world. Become part of it. And allow yourself to enjoy it.

Warren Ediger


Ibrahim et al (2008) Speaking Hebrew with an accent; Krashen (1997) Foreign language education the easy way, (2003) Explorations in Language Acquisition; Moyer (2007) Do language attitudes determine accent; Smith (1995) Between Hope and Havoc; Stevick (1989) Success with Foreign Languages.

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