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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

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Amount of L1 use affects L2 pronunciation

18 Jan

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