Accent on Becoming Fluent

In the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz, the authors try to encourage adult learners of foreign languages by first of all dispelling some myths and misconceptions regarding the comparative ability of children and adults when it comes to learning a foreign language.

One of the first myths people have is that children are better language learners than adults because their brains are better wired for language acquisition at a young age as compared to adults.   In only one area is that demonstrably true according to research, and that is the area of acquiring a native accent.   Chapter 5 of their book, “Language and Perception,” goes into the question of acquiring a native accent when you are an adult.

What does “acquiring a native accent” mean on an operational level.   The sounds that people make in a language are called phonemes by linguists, and these have to be distinguished between the letters that represent those sounds, which are referred to as graphemes.    The problem people have is that a) they must produce sounds that don’t exist in their native language, b) that the letters that produce the sounds they are used to in the foreign language don’t always correspond to the same sounds in a foreign language, and c) that the letters that produce the sounds they are used in the language are similar to, but the same as, the sounds that are produced in the foreign language.

When I was starting to study Arabic, the sound that is represented in transliteration by the letter “x” is called ‘ayn, and it is made by constricting the throat using the same muscles that you do when you yawn.    It is not a sound encountered in English, and it took some time to produce this sound correctly.    But it just means that I needed to take some time, look at diagrams of how the sound is made in the mouth and throat, and to listen to native speakers saying it over and over again, imitating them the best I could.    That was difficult.  But at least when I saw the letter which kind of looks like a backwards looking “3”, I knew that the sound was not one in English so I didn’t mix it up with any letters or sounds I already knew.

What is harder is when you see something that LOOKS familiar, but is actually different.  The French “r” is a perfect example of this.   Although the letter looks exactly the same as the “r” you use in English, the tongue is not against the ridge just above the gums in the mouth, but rather is floating against the BACK of the mouth, as if you were gargling.   That is what contributes to what we call the French accent.   The problem is that your mind sees an “r” and is USED to pronouncing it the English way, and the trick is training it to pronounce it a totally different way in a different environment.

Another example is the English long vowel sound “o” in the name “Joe.”   The “o” sound is really not one sound, but two sounds gliding together, an “oh” sound that glides at the very end into a “oo” sound.    The Spanish letter “o” has the initial “oh” sound but cuts it off there and does not glide into anything else.   Mastering the vowel sounds in Spanish is a matter of listening to the “purer” vowel sounds, purer in that they don’t change or glide into anything else during the course of pronouncing them.   But it is possible

When my Chinese teacher in college, Richard Chang, taught us Chinese, he was very strict on pronunciation.    He would show diagrams of how the Chinese sounds were made, made us learn the words for all the parts of the mouth so we knew what the hell he was talking about when he said “dental” vs. “alveolar” sounds, and he even had us bring a little mirror into class to practice looking at our mouth when we made the Chinese sounds to see visually how they were made.    At the time I was very impatient and was wondering why we were spending almost a month on pronunciation.   I wanted to get on with learning actual Chinese words and grammar!   And yet that time I spent paid off dividends that still continue to this day.   I’ve had Chinese people say that my Chinese is “hai keyi” (not bad), but that my pronunciation is very clear (“hen chingchu”) and easy for them to understand.

So it takes more effort as an adult to master a native accent that it does for a child, but the efforts are worth it.    Accent reduction is one of the most common tasks for those who are studying English as a Foreign Language (ESL), and I figure that as common courtesy, those for whom English is their native language need to pay as much attention when learning a foreign language!

With the helpful hints given by the authors of Becoming Fluent, which is based on numerous research studies in cognitive science, this is not just a laudable goal, but an achievable one as well.


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