Can Adult Language Learners Acquire a Native-speaker Accent Just by Listening?

This month we published English-Medium Instruction and Pronunciation by Karin Richter. In this post the author talks about what led her to study L2 pronunciation in adults and what we can expect to learn from the book.

Do university students who listen to regular lectures with native speakers improve their pronunciation skills?

Can adult language learners pick up a native-speaker accent just by listening? Or is there little hope because they are probably too old for acquiring a native-like accent? This book presents a longitudinal research project exploring exactly these questions. My interest in the topic arose out of my involvement in two core areas of educational linguistics, namely the current spread of English-medium instruction (EMI) at European universities and the development of L2 pronunciation skills in adult learners. Let me tell you how and why I set out on this exciting journey.

Why study adult pronunciation?

In 2003, the University of Applied Sciences (UAS) in Vienna, where I was teaching ESP courses at the time, pioneered a new programme – part of a growing wave across Europe: EMI. The UAS jumped on the bandwagon and was one of the first in the country to offer a bilingual (English/German) Bachelor’s degree in Entrepreneurship with up to 50% of the classes taught in English mostly by native speakers. In those early days of the EMI movement, it was hoped that the use of English to teach content courses would simultaneously enhance students’ content and language competence, based on the assumption that the learners benefit from ‘two for the price of one’. However, there was – and still is today – little research yet conducted to confirm this hope.

Interestingly, at the time, I was not only teaching a wide range of Business English courses at the UAS but also Practical Phonetics at another educational institution, namely the University of Vienna. Questions began to rise in my mind and I wondered how the EMI students’ increased exposure to English through their native-speaker teachers impacted on their foreign (Austrian) accent in English. I was curious what was going on implicitly, without any specific effort or attention. Essentially want I wanted to find out was: Do the students simply pick up the teacher’s accent without studying pronunciation or is it irrelevant what accent (foreign or native) the teacher has because adult learners at this stage have already passed the critical period for acquiring a native-like accent? As an experienced pronunciation teacher, these questions spurred me to embark on an empirical study in which I monitored the EMI students’ pronunciation for three years, looking in detail to see if they were making any gains or if they were hitting a wall because of their age.

What’s in the book?

The book begins with a comprehensive account of the rise of English-medium instruction in European higher education, examining the role of English as a Lingua Franca and exploring further questions about native-speaker norms. Then it goes on to discuss how languages in general and pronunciation in particular are learned in the EMI classroom and which factors (such as age, gender, musicality, attitude or motivation) influence L2 pronunciation mastery. Each chapter provides a thorough review of the literature, which then serves as the basis for the presentation and interpretation of the findings of my own study of Austrian business students at the UAS, whose pronunciation development I tracked over the entire duration of their Bachelor studies.

What did I find?

  • Do university students who listen to regular lectures with native speakers improve their pronunciation skills?
  • At their age (most of them were in their early 20s) can they make any significant gains with pronunciation at all?
  • Do EMI programmes result in considerable language development despite little to no explicit language instruction?
  • Do additional activities within and outside the programme influence their pronunciation more than just sitting in on lectures with the content area professors?
  • What are the main features of the Austrian learners’ accent in English which they were struggling with the most?

You’ll have to read the book to find out….

What contribution does this book make?

This book goes beyond the context of the particular case here. It addresses the burning issue of linguistic gains in tertiary EMI classrooms and also provides longitudinal data on L2 phonological changes in adult learners. Hence my purpose in embarking on the study and writing this book was to offer a valuable contribution to both the field of bilingual education as well as second language acquisition. I hope that the findings presented in this volume will spark new ideas for future studies in a fascinating field and that researchers as well as programme designers, teachers and students interested in English-medium instruction and second language phonology will find it a worthwhile and inspirational read.

Karin Richter

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like English-Medium Instruction in Japanese Higher Education edited by Annette Bradford and Howard Brown.

 

One thought on “Can Adult Language Learners Acquire a Native-speaker Accent Just by Listening?

  1. I am a case for listening first.
    Learned English in my preteen years by listening to
    US military personnel in
    downtown Recife Brazil
    1941-1945

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s