Flege, J. E., Frieda, E. M., & Nozawa, T. (1997). Amount of native-language (L1) use affects the pronunciation of an L2. Journal of Phonetics, 25(2), 169-186.
This study is presently a bit dated, but its results, at least to a certain extent, challenge some potentially misguided conceptions regarding childhood bilingualism. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to discuss their findings.
Flege, Frieda and Nozawa examined 240 Italian native speakers (the researchers call them native speakers because they learned Italian first, in Italy) who were adults living in Anglophone Canada at the time of the experiment. The Italian native speakers were assessed by native English speakers in Canada and the U.S. as to how strong of an Italian accent was present in their English. Essentially, Flege et al. wanted to find out whether some of the Italian native speakers had stronger Italian accents in their English than others, and why such differences might arise.
They split the Italian native speakers into two groups: the first, having less contact with Italian (self-reported average of 3%) and the second, having more contact with Italian (self-reported average of 36%). What makes the study interesting is that all of the Italian native speakers moved to Canada in early childhood (between 5.6 and 5.9 years), the assumption being that they were all exposed to English for the first time at this early age (e.g. in school).
The results revealed that both groups were found to have “mild” (p.183) but detectable foreign accents in their English, even though they had all started learning English at very young ages and had spoken English for 34 years on average. Crucially, the native Italian speakers who spoke Italian relatively more often had significantly stronger foreign accents in their English than those who seldom spoke Italian. These results are fundamental in our understanding of childhood bilingualism because they challenge the view that ultimate success in pronouncing an L2 is determined solely by an individual’s state of neurological development at the time of first exposure to an L2, or, put alternatively, they challenge the relatively commonly held view that pronunciation in an L2 is determined simply by age. Flege, Frieda and Nozawa say it’s not.
The study also raises a lot of questions: (1) do the findings apply to all individuals who learn an L2 in childhood? (2) are there other factors, aside from age and use, which might also influence pronunciation in an L2 (3) what was the L1 pronunciation like? More on questions like this in future blogs!
Esther de Leeuw