Milieu: the normal language spoken in the location of the person learning.
Acquisition: the process of ‘picking’ up’ an accent or language.
What is an accent?
Accents can be acquired in different ways. One way is as the remnant of the mother tongue which influences how we pronounce words and phrases in another language. Another is a way of speaking one’s mother tongue which may be slightly different from other speakers of that language. A third way is when an accent, or ways of speaking is acquired by association with speakers of a language. For instance, an Australian accent is developed by being around Australians during the developmental phase of a person’s language acquisition period, but can also be acquired by learning English from an Australian speaking teacher.
Acquiring an accent
In the case of acquiring an accent while living abroad, a speaker does so mainly by association or for clarity. When the listeners are used to hearing a particular language, for instance English, spoken in a certain way, for example, in an American accent, then they are more receptive to hearing English spoken in an American accent. Therefore a person abroad for the sake of expediency in being understood may begin speaking in an American accent to facilitate understanding. After a short time this accent becomes more and more natural and soon the Australian Accent, although never totally lost will become secondary.
Picking it up
An accent will be picked up unconsciously if a person in a foreign milieu is constantly exposed to the accent, for instance when working in a location where that accent is used exclusively. Many are the cases of an accent being picked up by speakers to be accepted by their friends in a particular situation. In fact, there are some people who are so attuned to the accents they hear that they can mimic an accent unconsciously simply by hearing it for an extended length of time. Certain accents may be deemed to be better story-telling accents, for instance, a Scottish accent may be seen as great for telling jokes, and so travelers will adopt this accent when telling that particular anecdote. If one hears a stirring piece of prose performed in an English accent, then in relating this prose to others one will use the same accent in an attempt to project the same stirring atmosphere.
Languages Other Than English
While it may be very easy to discern foreign accents of people who have had to learn another language because of travel or relocation, to the learned ear a regional accent can also be heard through the initial foreign accent. Therefore in acquiring the new language that person has been influenced by their mother tongue as expected, but their acquisition is also colored by the language of the milieu. For instance, if an Italian adult goes to Australia and learns English then he will speak in a uniquely Italian-Australian accent, whereas an Italian who travels to the United States will acquire an Italian American Accent.
Accents then can be picked up (acquired) when abroad either consciously or unconsciously, through a variety of means. Understanding exactly ‘how’ an accent is acquired is chiefly through a process of repetition of the sounds and nuances of a language as they are heard. Constantly being around the unique sounds of a language is crucial therefore to picking up that accent.