Can an adult learn to speak a second language with the accent of a native? Not likely, but new research suggests that we would make better progress, and be understood more easily by our conversational partners, if we abandoned a perfect accent as our goal in the language learning process.
For decades, traditional language instruction held up native-like pronunciation as the ideal, enforced by doses of “fear, embarrassment and conformity,” in the words of Murray J. Munro, a professor of linguistics at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Munro and a co-author, University of Alberta linguist Tracy Derwing, argue that this ideal is “clearly unrealistic,” leading to disappointment and frustration on the part of most adult language learners. Indeed, a growing body of evidence points to a “critical period” in childhood for acquiring correctly accented fluency in a given language; even as research on neuroplasticity has pushed the limits of what adults can learn, this boundary has remained stubbornly in place. In light of these findings, a newer generation of adult foreign-language teachers has given up pronunciation instruction altogether, assuming it is a futile effort.
Both of these assumptions are wrongheaded, contend Munro and Derwing. Pronunciation can be learned—but it should be learned with the goal of communicating easily with others, not with achieving a textbook-perfect accent. Adult students of language should be guided by the “intelligibility principle,” not the old “nativeness principle.” As Derwing and Munro note, “even heavily accented speech can be highly comprehensible.” (In a 2009 article published in the journal Language Teaching, the two warn against the “charlatanism and quackery” of the “accent reduction industry.” Such books, tapes and classes claim to be able “to eliminate a foreign accent within specific periods of time; 28 days is a popular number,” the authors observe. “There is no empirical evidence that this ever actually happens.”)
Learners guided by the intelligibility principle focus less attention on individual vowels and consonants, and more attention to the “macro” aspects of language, such as general speaking habits, volume, stress, and rhythm. A study by Derwing and colleagues showed that this approach can work. The investigators divided subjects into three groups: the first received foreign language instruction with no particular focus on pronunciation; the second received instruction with a focus on pronouncing the individual segments of language; and the third received “global” pronunciation instruction on the general way the foreign tongue should sound. After 12 weeks of classes, the students were asked to tell a story in their new language, and their efforts were rated by native-speaking listeners. Only the global group, the listeners reported, showed significant improvement in comprehensibility and fluency.
The intelligibility principle may be behind the acknowledged effectiveness of immersion-learning programs: when we immerse ourselves in a foreign language, particularly as spoken by natives, we’re picking up more than specific vocabulary words: we’re getting the gist of how the language is spoken, and our own attempts reflect this expansive awareness. Few of us have the time or money to engage in complete immersion, but a good tip is to limit your conversational practice with other native English speakers. The speech of second language learners, research shows, tends to “converge” toward a version of the foreign tongue that is more like the speakers’ native language. Instead, seek out someone who grew up talking the way you want to talk, and practice, practice, practice. You won’t sound perfectly like a native, but the natives will understand you perfectly well.