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Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates

1 Sep

Noels, K. (2005). Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates. Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 62(2), 285–312.

Most of the studies discussed so far involved large numbers of bilingual participants. Such investigations are interesting because they allow for generalisations: what does the majority of a large group do? However, in relation to bilingualism, such large-scale studies often don’t account for smaller sub-groups within the majority, or outliers, i.e. for the people who don’t perform according to the group norm. When accounting for outliers, one is essentially asking the does-everyone-do-that-(and-if-not,-why)? question(s). Sometimes, if there are enough outliers in a study, a researcher might be forced to question the generalisations he or she made about the group. For example, let’s say a researcher investigates adult population X and finds that most people (sub-population X1) in population X do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. The generalisation would be, quite simply, that most people do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. But – what if – in the same population X, population X2 were also found, and population X2 comprised highly motivated adult second language learners?  In that case, especially if population X2 were rather large, the researcher would (if he or she were a thorough researcher) want to ask why population X2 was especially motivated to learn second languages, as opposed to population X1. If the researcher were then able to find a factor which determined high motivation versus low motivation in adult second language acquisition, this researcher would have made a considerable step forward in research in bilingualism.

Kimberly Noels made such a step in her investigation into so-called German “heritage” language learners. Specifically, she investigated 99 students who were registered in German classes, differentiating between those who were of German decent (=heritage language learners) and those who were not of German decent (=non-heritage language learners). Although Noels examined German, globally, heritage language learners are a relatively common phenomenon. For example, whilst growing up in Anglophone Canada, I was exposed to Dutch because my father is Dutch, and my Oma and Opa were Dutch, but I can’t claim to have learned Dutch “perfectly” as a child; I was – and probably still am – a heritage language learner of Dutch as a result of less intensive exposure to the Dutch language resulting from my own cultural background. In her study, Noels found that heritage language learners of German were more motivated to learn German – than comparable non-heritage learners of German – for reasons related to their self-identify, and their conceptualisation of their cultural heritage. Interestingly, she didn’t just find that the heritage language learners were differently motivated to learn German, she also found that they were more successful at learning German than the non-heritage language learners.

In this way, her study feeds into a large body of research linking motivation to second language acquisition, some of which indicates that, even when a language is learned late in life, highly motivated learners are able to acquire native language proficiency in a second language. Practically, an implication of Noels’ research is that if you are thinking about learning a second language in adulthood, it might be worthwhile to focus on one with which you culturally identify due to your own heritage. In that case, you could be set to learn it quite well.

Esther de Leeuw

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

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