By Dr. Katharine B. Nielson –
You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and unfortunately for many non-native speakers, a foreign accent can sometimes get in the way. It’s one of the first things that people notice, and incomprehensible, heavily-accented English can be used to label and categorize, often wrongly.
The thing about accents is that they sometimes have little bearing on the person’s mastery of the language. I myself have benefitted from this, because my Spanish accent is usually better than my real-time command of grammar, so I can sometimes fool people into thinking that I am a better speaker than I actually am. Unhappily, this usually works the other way, and someone who legitimately has mastered the language with near-native fluency can be hampered by a thick accent. Language learners understandably want to minimize their accents, but they are rarely successful; let’s consider why.
To begin with, as children become adults, their ability to acquire a language “perfectly” slowly erodes, and you’d be hard-pressed to find people who learned a second language as adults who can use it the same way they can use their mother tongues. And the first element to go is phonology, which is the system of language sounds. Some scholars have argued that the ability to expertly acquire the sounds of a second language starts to disappear as early as the age of five, and by puberty it has disappeared. That’s why you often come across fluent, expert speakers who have spent their entire adulthoods living and working in their second languages, but still have an accent.
Then, as with everything else, traditional language classes often teach the wrong things. Pronunciation is frequently overlooked until it’s too late, and when teachers *do* try to teach it, they focus on the individual sounds that the language makes, rather than stress and intonation, which is completely the opposite of what they should do. First, it’s incredibly difficult to explain how to hear differences in sounds and then reproduce them. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, making the wrong sounds is not the biggest problem when it comes to comprehensibility.
Significant research has shown that the biggest factor in the degree to which someone is perceived as having a foreign accent is not how they make the sounds, but rather where they put the stress. Put another way, when native speakers hear language learners who put the stress on the wrong syllables, they think their accents are much stronger than when they hear language learners pronouncing the wrong sounds but with the stress on the correct syllables.
Try this for yourself. Take the sleep aid, “Melatonin.” Try saying it with the stress on the wrong syllable, “Me LAH to nin.” Then, try saying it with the wrong vowel sounds, “mu lu TA nen.” Which is easier to understand?
This is good news for pronunciation instruction, because it’s a lot easier to tell someone where to put word stress than it is to explain the subtle difference between the five pure vowel sounds of Spanish or Japanese and the (at least) fourteen different vowel sounds we have in English. English teachers would do their students a real service by helping them understand that a foreign accent is something that, despite their best efforts, might be with them for life, but that they can go a long way toward improving their intelligibility, and first impressions, by focusing on where they’re placing word stress and intonation.