WHY PEOPLE HAVE AN ACCENT WHEN LEARNING A SECOND LANGUAGE

LCL’s Assistant Professor Chunsheng George Yang presented, on March 8th, his contribution to the departmental lecture series entitled ‘Acquiring the pronunciation of second language Chinese’. Since his graduate studies, Dr. Yang has been interested in language pronunciation and has wondered why people have an accent when speaking a second language. His pedagogical research examines the relationship between the first language and speech. During his talk, Dr. Yang spoke about how our accent in a second language (L2) is likely to become stronger the older we learn it, and how our first language (L1) will influence the second one we acquire.

 

In his research, Professor Yang named two important factors that affect L2 speech learning: the phonetic similarity between our first and second language, and the effect of the number of sounds and vowels comprising our mother tongue. He explained that if we lacked a sound in our first language, we might not be able to detect it in the second language; on the other hand, if our native language had a similar sound, we could struggle to produce it because we might put it together with another sound. In that sense, he said, the new sound can turn out to be easier than the similar one. As an example, he spoke about Japanese learners of English who struggle to pronounce the ‘r’ sound because it does not exist in their own language. Dr. Yang emphasized the importance of lexicon, as it helps to discern differences.

 

Two of his latest studies tested the effect of sound inventory size on L2 speech learning and showed that L2 learners with a larger and more complex L1 vowel inventory were better at L2 vowel learning than those whose first language had a smaller vowel inventory. Professor Yang exposed the complexity of mastering the tone system in Mandarin Chinese, which might lead learners to misunderstandings. He compared the 4 tones of Chinese to the 3 tones of Yoruba language and 5 tones of Thai language and shared the results of his cross-linguistic study with Yoruba and Thai learners of Mandarin Chinese. He found that Yoruba learners made more tone errors than Thai learners, supporting his theory based on tone inventory size and phonetic similarity. Between the two factors, sound inventory size seemed to be a better L2 learning predictor than phonetic similarity, although more research needs to be conducted in this area.

 

Lastly, Dr. Yang argued that L2 speech learning is a very complicated task and that learners’ proficiency level depends on a series of individual, social and affective factors. In addition, motivation, talent and age also play a fundamental role in learning a language. He concluded that in ESL studies, accentedness does not correlate with neither intelligibility nor comprehensibility, which are the ultimate goals of language learners.

 

By Adriana Alcina