De Leeuw, E., Schmid, M. S., & Mennen, I. (2010). The effects of contact on native language pronunciation in an L2 migrant setting. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13 (Special Issue 01), 33–40.
De Leeuw, E., Schmid, M., & Mennen, I. (2007). Global foreign accent in native German speech. In J. Trouvain and W. Barry (eds.) Proceedings of the 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, 1605–1608.
This research addressed the question of whether it is possible for a native language (L1) to become foreign accented when a new language (L2) is acquired in adulthood.
More specifically, de Leeuw, Schmid, and Mennen (2010) recorded 57 German L1 speakers (who grew up in a monolingual German environment), and in late adolescence or adulthood moved abroad to either Canada or the Netherlands where they acquired respectively English or Dutch to a high level of proficiency. These bilinguals (the speakers) moved abroad at an average age of 27 and had resided in their country of choice for an average of 37 years. The speakers were recorded in their German L1 describing a silent Charlie Chaplin film they had just seen and, thereafter, the edited recordings were played to another group of Germans in Germany (the listeners), who had a limited knowledge of other languages. Only grammatically correct utterances were included in the recordings because the researchers wanted the listeners, who rated the bilinguals on how native-like they were in their German, to base their ratings solely on their actual pronunciation, and not on any potential grammatical oddities.
Strikingly, the results from the study revealed that the German listeners were significantly more likely to perceive a foreign accent in the German speech of the bilinguals in Canada and the Netherlands than in the speech of the control group (made up of German native speakers with a limited knowledge of other languages, who were recorded in Germany performing the same task as the bilinguals). Indeed, 14 of the German native speakers residing in either Canada or the Netherlands were clearly perceived to be non-native speakers of their native German, more-or-less across the board by all listeners.
In another analysis of these same bilinguals (de Leeuw, Schmid, & Mennen, 2007), results indicated that contact with the native German language had a more significant effect on predicting foreign accented native speech than age of arrival or length of residence in the recipient country. In particular, for both English and Dutch L2 groups, foreign accent was more likely to be perceived in the native speech of the bilinguals who had less contact with their native German language than in those who had more contact, although this effect was clearer in the bilinguals who moved abroad after 22 years of age.
In many ways, this research challenges our understanding of what native speech actually is. On the one hand, it seems that native speech is malleable across the lifespan – and not “anchored in the brain” with no potential for it to change once acquired up to adulthood. On the other hand, the results raise questions with regard to who defines a native speaker – is it the speaker of the language? Or is it the listener of the language? Or, are other parameters involved in determining native speech, and if so, what are they?
These are questions which I will attempt to answer in future blog entries.
Esther de Leeuw