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Vocabulary. Read and check you understand this before you read and listen to the article:
L2: second language
cut-off: to stop or an end point
blank slates: idea that humans are born with no built in mental content
phonemes: distinct units of sound in a language
peer pressure: influence from friends, classmates etc
mimic: to copy speech of others to ridicule and for fun
handful: a small amount or number
In essence the question is, what are the factors determining L2 accent and pronunciation and is there a cut-off age? Perhaps another question we should also ask is why should skill in acquiring a new phonological system decrease with age? In fact, most other cognitive abilities get remarkably better with age so why should adult learners seemingly lose the ability to acquire native-like pronunciation?
Obviously, other factors are important in L2 acquisition such as motivation, phonological interference, or different methods of acquisition, generally by analytical study and reflection than immersion for L2 learners. In contrast, infants are like blank slates and imitate the sounds of adults they hear. Eventually, after exposure to their native language they gradually start to only pay attention to the contrasts which differentiate meaning, the phonemes. They have less and less ability to learn how to produce and differentiate sounds. Research shows that even very young children show decreased sensitivity to contrasts not present in their native language.
As learners, and perhaps parents, we observe that younger children can approximate the sounds of L2 easier than adults. Some research suggests that the ability to do so naturally (i.e., without much conscious effort) recedes after puberty. This may have something to do with peer pressure and self image rather than ability. We all know learners who have large vocabularies and speak correctly but do so with a ‘foreign’ accent. This may be down to the physical reality of having spent most of their lives producing the distinctive sounds of their L1 and that when they speak L2 it is through the L1 pronunciation filter.
However, this does NOT mean that learners of whatever age cannot attain native-like pronunciation in L2. For example, my two daughters speak Spanish, Euskara, Bosnian and English with native-like pronunciation in all languages. It must be noted that they were brought up learning three and four languages simultaneously. The point is humans can sound native-like in various languages depending on their language learning opportunities and circumstances.
As for adults who aspire to native-like pronunciation, all hope is NOT lost. Actors and impersonators who mimic other accents and dialectics show that humans are capable of reproducing native-like pronunciation in L2. In my years in the EFL profession I have met a handful of learners and teachers who achieved native like pronunciation in Spanish, English and Arabic even though they started their learning journey in their mid-twenties. The common factor I noticed is that they worked extremely hard on their pronunciation. Contrary to popular belief they did not just ‘pick it up.’ To achieve native-like pronunciation needs conscious effort and hard work after the cut-off.
So, to answer the question in one sentence: maybe there is a cut-off point around puberty to achieve native-like pronunciation in L2 without conscious effort, but adults need not be too pessimistic because if they really want to climb that pronunciation mountain there are guides, but they will not reach the peak without a clear plan and a commitment to dedicating time and hard work. Good luck!
Written by John Hird
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