All foreign language learners struggle with their accents when learning a new language. As many are aware it seems nearly impossible for a second language learner to speak the language with a native-level accent. However, it does appear possible, even as a “late language learner” to develop a native-level accent in a foreign language. Some research indicates that children under the age of twelve have a much easier time overcoming their native accents in foreign languages than “late language learners,” or those who have started learning the new language after the age of twelve (McDonald, 2006). It is important as language teachers to realize this and to perhaps develop methods for instilling native-level accents in all students.
Some studies have found that the attainment of a native-level accent for all ages is ultimately impossible. For example, Flege et al., in 2006, performed a study on native Korean children and adults who had been living in the United States between three and five years. They found that both children and adults still had foreign accents when compared to native English speakers of the same ages (Flege et al., 2006). In 1995, Flege et al. performed a similar study involving 240 native Italians who had moved to Canada, and been living there for a period of thirty-two years. He found with this group, both the children, who had arrived in Canada well within the Critical Period (ages 3-11), and those who had arrived as late language learners, outside the critical period, had distinctive foreign accents when compared to native English speakers (Flege et al., 1995). This research indicates that when learning a new language the student is doomed to have a foreign accent.
When exploring further research the results become more varied, and some studies even show native-level accents to be quite possible in foreign language learners. Singleton and Lengyel performed a study in 1995 on second language acquisition of English in two groups of native Dutch, all of whom were late learners, one group of “exceptionally successful learners of English,” and one group of average learners of English (Singleton, 1995). They were recorded and tested on four different speech patterns. First, talking for three minutes about their most recent holiday abroad, second, read aloud a short English text (84 words), third, read aloud ten short English sentences (5-10 words), and fourth, read aloud twenty-five English words. These two groups were compared to a group of five native English speakers, who were asked to perform the same four patterns, and all were rated on a scale from one to five, one, a very strong foreign accent, and five, a definitively native accent. Perhaps the most exciting piece of evidence that was found in this research was that on average the “exceptionally successful learners of English” out performed the native English speakers with a mean score of 4.31 compared to 3.94 (Singleton, 1995). This shows ability in foreign language learners to develop native-level accents in English. Neufeld conducted an experiment with twenty Canadian university students over the course of about twenty hours. The group was divided in half, and ten students learned some basic Chinese sound patterns, and the other ten learned some basic Japanese sound patterns. This took place over a total of eighteen hours. Then each student was given ten short phrases in the target language and asked to repeat it five times. The last repetition was recorded and played to native speakers of the target language. Nine subjects were judged to be native speakers of Japanese, and eight subjects were judged to be native speakers of Chinese (Singleton, 1995). This indicates that native-level accents are attainable to foreign language learners if they focus on learning the basic sound patters of a language before focusing on vocabulary.
The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) has been used to describe difficulties in acquiring a native-level accent in a foreign language. In 1967 Eric Lenneberg proposed the CPH, which states that there is a period of cognitive and physical development, ages five to puberty, in which language learning progresses more rapidly, and after which it is more difficult to develop (Lenneberg, 1967). This hypothesis was derived from: evidence of feral children and victims of child abuse who were raised without exposure to human language and who were unable to fully acquire the ability to produce it, deaf children who were unable to develop spoken language after puberty, and evidence that children with aphasia have a better chance at recovery than aphasiac adults (Lenneberg, 1967). However, given the research and studies above, this theory does not hold true in regards to foreign language acquisition and acquiring native-level accents.
Teachers can use various activities to address the basic sound patterns of a language in tandem with teaching students vocabulary and sentence structure. Listening to music in the target language is a way of exposing the basic sound patterns of the target language, and the use of other media such as television shows, movies, or skits may be used as well to illustrate those sound patterns in more a natural setting. Another activity to do for short periods of time (about five minutes) is to use similar sounds to address correct pronunciation. For example, if a student has trouble with the word ‘mouse,’ but can pronounce ‘house’ perfectly, alternating between the two words quickly improves the pronunciation of the difficult word. Pronunciation quizzes or speaking exercises can be used frequently to evaluate the students’ progress towards native-level accents as well. These tools may help students attain accents closer to native-level, however, given the evidence of the studies above, there is no evidence to support that any activities will be more or less effective at teaching accents.
- Flege, James E. et al. Effects of age of second-language learning on the production of English consonants. Speech Communication, Vol. 16. 1995.
- Flege, James E. et al. Degree of foreign accent in English sentences produced by Korean children and adults. Journal of Phonetics, Vol. 34. 2006.
- Lenneberg, Eric. Biological Foundations of Language. Wiley, New York. 1967.
- McDonald, Janet L. Beyond the Critical Period: Processing-based explanations for poor grammatically judgement performance by late second language learners. Journal of Memory and Language, Vol. 55, Iss. 3. October 2006.
- Singleton, David and Zesolt Lengyen. The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition. Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters, 1995. Book.