Age and Second Language Acquisition of Pronunciation
Jul 18, 2010 Pronunciation/Phonics 7547 Views
Age and Second Language Acquisition of Pronunciation
There are several factors that underlie the effective teaching of pronunciation such as age, exposure to the target language, prior second language instruction, aptitude, attitude and motivation. Age in particular plays an important role in acquiring a native-like accent in second language acquisition.
In this respect, researchers claim that adults are unable to achieve perfect or native-like pronunciation in a second language. However, children with adequate exposure to a second language can achieve perfect or near perfect pronunciation (Celce-Murcia et al, 1996). This argument is based on the Critical Period Hypothesis which proposes that there is a limited period during which language acquisition can occur. That is, there are biological mechanisms specifically designed for language acquisition and that these cease to be available at or even before puberty. Thus, an older learner has to use general learning mechanisms that are not designed for language acquisition which make second language learning more difficult for older learners (Lightbown & Spada, 2003).
Nevertheless, not all second language researchers agree with the Critical Period Hypothesis perspective. There are many who argue that the Critical Period Hypothesis overlooks such differences between child and adult second language acquisition as exposure to the target language, attitude toward the second language and motivation.
Some other researchers raised the issue of fossilization in SLA. Fossilization refers to the fact that some features in a learner's language may stop changing. They proposed that the causes of fossilization might be physiological, psychological or affective (Grant, 1995).
I agree that age plays a significant role in SLA in terms of a child having the ability to absorb a second language- nativelike- easily and quickly especially if he/she grows up with it. However, I am more appealed to the viewpoint that there are other factors that might influence the SLA (pronunciation in specific) such as the environment in which adults typically learn a second language, i.e. a classroom, may not be rich as that experienced by children acquiring a second language in a more natural environment full of input.
In respect of whether adults might have some advantages over children in learning or not, I believe that it is difficult to compare children and adults as second/foreign language learners for a couple of reasons. First, there are possible biological differences between adults and children as suggested by the Critical Period Hypothesis. Second, the conditions for language learning are different; children as young learners have more time to devote to learning unlike adult learners. However, adult learners have some advantages over children such as possessing the ability to use their meta-linguistic knowledge, memory strategies, and problem-solving skills, and they are likely to make the most of second or foreign language instruction. According to Thompson & Gaddes (Feburary, 2005), one of the major advantages adult students possess is the ability to self-examine how they learn. This can be referred to as self-monitoring (i.e. the conscious action of listening to one's own speech in order to find errors) and self-correction (i.e. the process of fixing one's errors after they have occurred by repeating the word or phrase correctly). Cognitive learning such as learning intonation in English is generally easier for adult learners. The advantage of advanced cognitive awareness is something that adults possess but children do not (ibid).
I think it is worthwhile to teach children a foreign language in the classroom, but the teaching methods and approaches would be totally different from a class of adults. Children learn through imitation, so the main techniques that should be applied in the classroom are tasks based on imitation similar to the way we had learned the alphabet and numbers in our L1 when we were children. This would be absolutely different from a class that has adult language learners because of their high cognitive ability they can learn more complex tasks.
My understanding of the SLA issues helps me to formulate a view of how the total process of SLA works when it comes to young versus adult learners. Speaking of adult learners, their cognitive ability works as an advantage for them in the process of learning a second language. Although a native-like accent is unlikely, I agree with Brown (2001) that "It is important to remember […] that pronunciation of a language is not by means the sole criterion for acquisition, nor is it really the most important one. We all know people who have less than perfect pronunciation but who also have magnificent and fluent control of a second language, control that can even exceed that of many native speakers." (pp. 59-60).
I know some people who learned English at a relatively late age and they have an almost perfect accent. I can recall two people now. The first one is a person who even though has never been to an English speaking country speaks with a perfect English accent. The reason behind this I assume is self-motivation which grew out from his love for the language. Another person is one of my friends whom after her graduation from the English department had been to the UK for her master's studies. Surprisingly enough, when she came back home her accent improved to an almost perfect accent. I guess that the surrounding environment contributed to the perfection of her pronunciation in addition of course to her aptitude.
Although there are considerable numbers of studies in the field of SLA, the issue of SLA is still a heated topic among researchers. This is perhaps due to the fact that there are different conclusions regarding how a learner acquires a second language and the real factors that influence the learning process.
Celce-Murcia, C., M., Brinton, D., & Goodwin, J. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity.
Grant, L. (1995). Creating pronunciation-based ESL materials for publication in P. Byrd (Ed.) Materials Writer's Guide. Boston: Heinle & Heinle. p107-113
Lightbown, P.M. & Spada, N. (2003). How languages are learned. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
Thompson, T., & Gaddes, M. (February, 2005). The importance of teaching pronunciation to adult learners. Asian EFL Journal from http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/