“Native-like” speaking in a second language is up to the individual
By Maricia Guzman, NewsNetNebraska
Theresa Catalano, a professor and linguistics researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has three daughters and one son.
Like any good researcher, she found an opportunity to do a personal experiment in her children.
She and her husband, an Italian native, raised their children bilingually, speaking to them in English and Italian. At the same time the children learned Spanish.
Catalano wanted to see what differences and similarities she would find in her children in how they learned their languages.
Although all three children had the same parents and were raised in the same environment not all three learned the languages the same.
In fact, her son, had a recognizable accent in Italian and had difficulties making certain sounds while his sisters did not.
The results were interesting because, Catalano said, it showed that for people learning foreign languages, even at a young age, how much of an “accent” that person ends up having is a completely individual experience.
UNL offers undergraduate degrees in seven modern languages. These include: Chinese, Czech Russian, Spanish, French, German and Japanese.
At some point in time students learning a foreign language must pay attention to pronunciation and they often feel the need to sound more like a “native speaker” would when speaking the language.
For some people sounding like a native speaker while speaking their second language is relatively easy but for others it may be something they struggle with for life.
“Students often think they speak better than they do but if they could actually hear the difference they would probably make adjustments,” Catalano said.
But what is an accent? Why do some people lose theirs while others never do? Why can some people learn a new language and sound like a native-speaker while others can’t?
Accents are the way a person sounds when he or she speaks. All people have an accent, even when they speak in their native language. Regional accents also exist within languages and can vary greatly.
For people learning a foreign language speaking like a native speaker can be a challenging process.
“How much of an accent someone speaks with really depends on an individual and their personal circumstances,” Catalano said.
Catalano referenced a study called “Factors affecting degree of foreign accent in a second language,” which is research complied by three linguists/language experts from the U.S. Germany and Canada.
There are factors that are influential in whether or not someone speaks their second language with a “native accent.”
The following are some factors; early exposure to a second language, language use outside of school interaction, the type of instruction teachers use, the individual’s aptitude for language learning, the individual’s attitude, the ability to mimic unfamiliar sounds, ethnic ties, how much a person connects with the foreign culture, length of time person has spent in the country where the language is spoken and gender. (Women tend to have better pronunciation and foreign accents than men learning the same second language.)
“It all really does depend on the individual,” Catalano said.
Isabel Maria Velazquez is a Spanish professor and researcher at UNL. She has done extensive research on inter-generational Spanish speakers in Nebraska and the Midwest.
She wants to explore how or why Spanish is maintained or lost in Latino families even when they live in communities where Spanish is not necessarily common.
“One of the most interesting findings is the relevance of the mother for the maintenance or loss of a family language,” Velazquez said. “The mother’s social network, her attitudes toward the language, and the mother’s perception about her role in her children’s linguistic and academic development are crucial in determining the amount of time and resources the family will spend to transmit the language to the children.”
Once again, the ties a person has to a language play a big role in his overall development as a language leaner.
As a professor, Velazquez’s main goal is to help her students be solid communicators rather than perfect speakers.
“If my students can communicate their ideas clearly, their pronunciation does not have to be native-like,” Velazquez said.
For many American students learning a language in addition to English will be key in making themselves competitive in an increasingly global world.
Catalano believes one way to help give future generations of students an edge will be by supporting dual language school programs.
These schools teach all the topics a normal school would teach but in two languages. Often class topics are instructed in the morning in one language and then covered again in the second language in the afternoon.
“Dual language programs, especially ones with native and non-native speakers are an advantage and benefit both sides,” Catalano said. “Nebraska needs to step up and offer more dual language and immersion programs and further develop the ones we already have.”
While attempting to speak with a “native accent” does play an important role in the language learning process, both Catalano and Velazquez agree it’s the ability to communicate that counts most.
For Velazquez, improving student communication is her top priority because she believes it opens up many opportunities for her students.
“Language is at the core of human experience. Think about it: Planning, arguing, falling in love, learning to cook, singing, reading about places you’ve never been to, finding a cure for cancer, could you do it without language?” she said.