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I know Matthew Rhys's (who portrays Phillip Jennings) first language is Welsh, and speaks English with a Welsh accent, so he's imitating the US accent in The Americans. But US-born actors with American English as their mother tongue, portray many KGB spies like

  1. his movie and real-time wife, Keri Russell, who portrays Elizabeth Jennings.

  2. Frank Langella who portrays their first KGB handler. Margo Martindale who portrays Claudia, the Jennings' second and fifth KGB handler.

The Jennings never lived in the US when they were kids, for in the scene (please edit this if you remember which) where they're checking into their motel, the air conditioner dazzles Elizabeth who remarks the USSR doesn't have these luxuries.

The Jennings are flashed back as impecunious when they were kids. So they probably didn't learn English diligently until they joined the KGB in their 20s. So it feels unrealistic that these KGB spies could've acquired US English to speak like native speakers. Research on L2 (second language) acquisition doesn't substantiate such success.

Fromkin. Linguistics: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory (2001 1 edn). p 546.

A strong foreign accent can often persist even after years of practice.

Yule. The Study of Language (2016 6 ed). p 210. If anyone has the 2020 7 edn, please don't hesitate to edit this.

      Despite the fact that insufficient time, focus and incentive undermine many L2 learning attempts, there are some individuals who seem to be able to overcome the difficulties and develop an ability to use the L2 quite effectively, though not usually sounding like a native speaker.
      However, even in ideal acquisition situations, very few adults seem to reach nativelike proficiency in using an L2. There are individuals who can achieve great expertise in the written language, but not the spoken language. One example is Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), who wrote novels in English that became classics of English literature, but whose English speech retained the strong Polish accent of his L1. This might suggest that some features of an L2, such as vocabulary and grammar, are easier to learn than others, such as pronunciation. Indeed, without early experience using the sounds and intonation of the L2, even highly proficient adult learners are likely to be perceived as having an “accent” of some kind.
[...]
The optimum age for learning may be during the years from about ten to sixteen when the flexibility of our inherent capacity for language has not been completely lost, and the maturation of cognitive skills allows a more effective analysis of the regular features of the L2 being learned.

Some KGB officers speak accented English like those portrayed by USSR-born actors, like

  1. Lev Gorn who portrays Arkady Ivanovich Zotov, the KGB's Rezident at the Soviet embassy.

  2. Costa Ronin as Oleg Igorevich Burov, originally the Soviet embassy's Science and Technology officer, a privileged son of a government minister.

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    Those selected to be under-cover spies would either have the background or the training to not have a noticeable accent. If you have a large enough cohort to select from - you can choose those who manage the accent, and reject those who do not. Perhaps they spent time as children in the USA. – iandotkelly Aug 16 '20 at 15:59
  • Why the downvotes? – NNOX Apps Aug 16 '20 at 16:43
  • @iandotkelly Don't my quotes from linguistics textbook counter "the training to not have a noticeable accent"? If this training is possible, then more people would become polyglots. – NNOX Apps Aug 16 '20 at 16:45
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    Either (a) they speak with a native American accent because they spent childhood time in the US, (b) they have been trained to speak with an American accent or (c) it's unrealistic. The fact that actual spies exist who do pass for a native imply (a) or (b) can happen. Your quotes from a linguistics textbook indicating that it is hard don't really counter that it isn't impossible. Very few people are given the luxury of long term (i.e. expensive) intensive training. Actors are for example - and some are excellent. – iandotkelly Aug 16 '20 at 17:44
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    What's the point of the quotes? None of them claim "no one with an L2 speaks it without an influence from L1". None of them are studies on what percentage of the learner population shows a noticeable accent compared to one of a small region. And you're questioning the ability of the spies to perform one of the basic requirements of being undercover. Might explain the reason for the downvotes. – M.A.R. Aug 17 '20 at 18:02
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Here is a sort of a joke.

"I am very lucky, because I come from the place where everyone speaks English without an accent, and the farther away from where I live someone comes from, the stronger their accent is. I'm so lucky to come from the small region where everyone speaks English correctly."

What makes this a joke?

Everybody has an accent. You don't notice your own accent because to you that is the normal way of speaking English, but you do notice people who speak English with different accents.

So obviously the Russian spies in the show do speak English with an accent, but they studied American English so hard and so long that they speak it with an American accent and not a foreign accent, especially not a Russian accent like native Russian speakers would be expected to have.

The Russian spies would have been trained to speak American English without a strong regional accent, so presumably they would used the accent used by most television performers, the more or less standard American accent.

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  • Don't my quotes from linguistics textbooks counter "they studied American English so hard and so long that they speak it with an American accent and not a foreign accent"? – NNOX Apps Aug 16 '20 at 16:44
  • Adding to this: the 2 spies were the elite from a number of candidates in the USSR, they were selected for a reason. – Breaking not so bad May 24 at 7:44

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