Well, let’s see.
In this post, we’re going to explore some of the reasons why achieving a native accent in a second language as an adult might be a bit harder than we think. Just so you know, this post could well end up being the first in a series!
Robert McKinney (2019)*, provides a very useful summary of the most recent research on whether it’s possible to master speaking a second language like a native when you learn it as an adult.
The desire to ‘speak like a native’ was investigated in 2003 by Derwing*. One hundred adults who were learning English as a second language in Canada were asked to answer the following question: ‘If it were possible, I would pronounce English like a native speaker’. The adults were asked to answer the question by rating their level of agreement with it on a seven point scale, like the one below:-
Unsurprisingly (to me, anyway), 82% rated themselves at 1 and 13% at 2.
There are some good reasons why adult clients express a desire for a ‘perfect’ English accent, such as:-
- Wanting to feel a sense of community / belonging with native speakers;
- A strong desire for personal and professional success;
- Expectations of native speakers themselves – who often believe that those who learn their language can (and should) correct their pronunciation / accent.
This combination of factors sets a very high bar and leaves us with a bit of a dilemma and a key question:-
Is it possible to achieve a native accent when learning a second language as an adult or not?
Much of the assumption that speakers of English as a second language should be able to master a ‘native’ accent is based on the fact that children mostly acquire a second language easily, achieving native sounding accents in their second (or even third) languages.
However, in adulthood, this becomes more difficult.
So it’s easy to assume that all you need to do is work a bit harder, right?
What does the research say?
A lot of research has investigated whether there is a specific period when a second language can be acquired with native speaker proficiency. Specifically:-
– Is there a biological factor?
Achieving native proficiency in a second language not only means learning the language itself, but also it’s system of speech sounds (aka phonology) and patterns of stress, rate, intonation and rhythm.
The ‘Critical Period Hypothesis’ (CPH) argues that there is a certain point in biological development after which achieving native level pronunciation is not possible.
Why? Researchers have provided a number of possible explanations, however, in 2018, Birdsong* argued that “after puberty, the ‘circuitry’ needed to learn languages is dismantled because in adulthood, there remains no selection pressure on humans to keep learning languages.”
To put it another way, children are wired to naturally acquire the language(s) they hear around them in a way that adults are not.
– Is age an issue?
Research has also focused on the earliest age can be exposed to a second language and achieve native like speech, alongside the latest age someone might learn a language and achieve the same.
It is not possible to be absolutely specific, but there is a general consensus amongst researchers that most people who learn a language after the age of 12 (approximately) will have an accent.
There are, of course, individual exceptions, which is why the period of 6-12 years has come to be known as a sensitive, rather than critical, period. It should be kept in mind that researchers are unlikely to ever identify a definitive cut off age.
So yes, age and biology are both issues
In conclusion, if you’re learning English as a second language after about the age of 12, you are highly likely to have an accent of some kind.
It is not simply a matter of having to working harder on your pronunciation to achieve a native or ‘perfect’ accent because you’re an adult.
This is not the end of the world. And guess what, everyone has an accent in some form – they are a reflection of our social and cultural identities – and surely, that is something to be valued.
And here’s the silver lining …
Improvement is most definitely achievable.
The key is to enable those individuals who want to improve their accent / pronunciation in a second language to communicate clearly, confidently and naturally – so what they’re saying is the focus, not how they’re saying it.
This is what we aim for at Artikul8®.
Birdsong, D. (2018). Plasticity, variability and age in second language acquisition and bilingualism. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, p81.
Derwing, T. (2003). What do ESL students say about their accents? Canadian Modern Language Review, 59 (4), pp547-566.
McKinney, R. (2019). Accent Modification. A manual for SLPs. Plural Publishing.