Archive | February, 2012

Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of a Foreign Language

15 Feb

Bongaerts, T., van Summeren, C., Planken, B., & Schils, E. (1997). Age and Ultimate Attainment in the Pronunciation of a Foreign Language. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 19(04), 447–465.

This research targets the core of a long history of research in bilingualism which subscribes to the line of thought that, actually, it is never possible to speak a second language (L2) acquired outside of childhood like a real native language. Bongaerts et al. wanted to find out whether or not this is true.

More specifically, the purpose of their research was to examine whether people who learn an L2 after childhood can ever be perceived to be native speakers in their L2, as judged by real native speakers. In both of their studies, the listeners (who assessed the L2 speech) were British English monolinguals, whilst the L2 speakers were Dutch native speakers who had acquired English in school after 12 years of age in the Netherlands, and then gone on to become university lecturers of English in the Netherlands. These bilinguals were deemed to be “highly successful learners with an excellent command of (British English)” (p. 452) even before the actual investigation started.

Surprisingly, in their first study, five of the ten advanced Dutch learners of English scored higher than the British English control group, i.e. the Dutch lecturers of English were rated to be more native-like in their English than the real native speakers of English. Although this result is, on its own, rather intriguing, Bongaerts et al. argued that because the Dutch native speakers had learned a more prestigious form of British English (which contrasted with the somewhat regionally accented speech of the English monolingual control group), the listeners may have misinterpreted this more prestigious variety to be native speech and the regionally accented English speech of the control group to be foreign accented.

Their second study was therefore modified to match the listeners with the speakers: both parties were assessed to speak British English with a “neutral, non-regional accent” (p. 453). In line with the results of their first study, they showed that the group of highly successful learners of English received scores comparable to that of the native speaker controls. Some of the Dutch native speakers even outperformed members of the control group. Together, their results indicate that it actually is possible to speak a non-native language like a real native language.

But what made these learners so exceptional? How did they get to be so proficient in their English? After all, not every L2 learner outperformed the British control group, only some of them did. Bongaerts et al. suggest that motivation and intensive language input (see blog of 18 January 2012) are integral in perfecting the pronunciation of an L2. In other words, if a late bilingual receives enough input in his or her L2, and is highly motivated to acquire “perfect” pronunciation, it is possible to speak an L2 acquired outside of childhood like a real native language. In future blogs, we’ll discuss how more recent research (with conflicting interpretations) has targeted this controversial question of whether an L2 can ever become a native language.

Esther de Leeuw