comfortably intelligible

When you speak the language you are learning as an adult, it’s unlikely that the native speakers listening to you will reply with “What part of France/Italy/Finland/Catalunia are you from?”. You will sound like you’re a second language learner. Tracey Derwing and Murray Munro write that ‘most learners who strive for nativeness are likely to become disheartened’. Everything is against you it seems: time, age, your brain.

There are a lot of reasons to suggest that striving for native-like pronunciation is doomed right from the start. Firstly, it’s difficult to perceive linguistic sounds that aren’t present in your first language or languages. Our developing sound systems fossilize when we are children, many researchers suggest 6 years of age as a cut-off point. Newborn babies are able to perceive fine phonetic differences in sounds, but this incredible ability quickly fades as the infant tunes into only those linguistic sounds he or she needs to understand the ambient language or languages. After 6 years of age, any language learned will be learned with at least some degree of measurable non-nativeness. Other researchers say that 12 is the very last point at which a language can begin to be learned with minimal non-nativeness elements. This doesn’t mean that your accent cannot change: the social pressures exerted on teenagers often lead to some changes in accent. However, the changes aren’t radical changes to the way the sounds of the language are produced, rather represent small markers of identity.


Your first language also has a huge effect. Negative transfer is the name given to sounds and rules in your first language that migrate into your second language. For example, English has a rule that reduces all vowels in unstressed syllables to the central vowel called schwa (as in the second syllable as the name Adam). Schwa is the most common sound in the English language. Welsh doesn’t have this rule and schwa (represented by the letter y) is a vowel in its own right. This means that it can be difficult to get adult learners to realise their vowels when speaking Welsh, we end up with “Cunolfun” (IPA: /kənɔlvən/) instead of canolfan /kanɔlvan/. (Interestingly though, this vowel reduction rule also exists in Catalan and means Catalans are at a bit of an advantage over speakers of other Romance Languages when it comes to speaking English).

Then there other extra-linguistic factors, such as how much exposure you have to the language outside of class and how much you continue to use your first or other languages whilst you learn the target one. “Length of residence” is another important factor, though this is perhaps a difficult concept in the case of Wales where many learners have lived in Wales all their lives, they just haven’t spoken Welsh.

Motivation is another arguably monstrously important factor. Why are you learning the language? Is it because you’re just interested in the language (a noble reason in and of itself of course!) or is it because you don’t want to stir the calm linguistic waters of your in-laws’ house by rocking up at their house at Christmas and trying to communicate in broken Slovak? Have you got kids in a Welsh medium school? Do you want to read an ancient Icelandic text? Do you want to improve your German opera singing? Are you interested in speaking at all? Perhaps you’ve just got a fascination for Mandarin’s non-alphabetic writing system and only speak when your teacher compels you to do so. Alene Moyer investigated the correlation between professional motivation and native-like pronunciation finding an interesting relationship between perceived nativeness and professional motivation for language learning.

This raises a few questions, first of which is whether there’s any point in trying to improve your pronunciation. Most of the studies seem to suggest it’s a doomed project. What are the reasons for not worrying about pronunciation, then? I think an important part of not trying too hard might be that it’s good to sound like you’re not a native speaker. It marks you as a learner and may (unless you’re in France) mean that your interlocutor will adjust their speech and give you more time during the interaction. Your identity as a learner is also important. You’re never going to become Portuguese, you’re always going to be a British person who’s moved to Portugal and this is part of your identity. You might have been born in Wales and then moved to London as a child and now be trying to find your Welsh again, but the fact that you lived elsewhere as a child is a part of who you are. It’s a part of your identity that will become a part of your linguistic identity- and that’s interesting and something of which you can be proud.

Another reason is that you don’t need to sound like a native speaker in order to be understood and to use the language. The famous phonetician David Abercrombie stated that “language learners need no more than a comfortably intelligible pronunciation”. There are also so many varieties of the language you’re learning that it’s difficult to say objectively whether you’re “speaking it like a native” or not. Think about the extreme differences in pronunciation in Welsh between the North and the South. Some northerners have got a palatal version of ll that means they make this sound without smiling and passing air through the sides of the tongue, instead, it’s made in a similar way to the sound in the German word ich. In the North, they’ve also got a difference in pronunciation between u and i; they don’t need to say “i-dot” or “u-bedol” when they’re spelling things out because these letters are different sounds. Think about the differences between Candian French and French as spoken in the French Republic. What about the rhythm and cadence of North East England varieties of English and how this differs from the intonational patterns of Suffolk English. What’s native to one native speaker isn’t necessarily native to another native speaker.

Have a listen to These Islands Now on Radio Scotland. In Episode 1, “the Europeans Who Have Made Sheltand Their Home” (strange title, Shetlanders are Europeans too I think…), Richard Forbes interviews a group of people from continental Europe who moved out to the North Sea to start a life there. Their accents are brilliant! The woman from Hungary has an accent that it a harmonious blend of Shetlandic and Hungarian English. She is a good example of non-nativeness as a proud identity marker and also the notion that nativeness is difficult to measure. Her Shetlandic-Magyar English has features that are very native in Shetland, but not in other parts of Scotland or the UK.

Whilst non-native pronunciation may be acceptably unachievable, there is change afoot I think. Adult education hasn’t been very good at teaching pronunciation. Pronunciation is often relegated to teaching initial sounds in the first few lessons only.  In European languages, there has historically also been an almost total lack of teaching intonation, rhythm and stress. But things seem to be changing. In Wales, there is increasing research output which highlights the neglect that pronunciation receives in Cymraeg i Oedolion (Welsh for Adults). A recent paper by researchers at the School of Welsh in Cardiff  highlights the fact that little attention is given to pronunciation beyond the initial cwrs mynediad (beginners’ course), despite the fact that a majority of learners surveyed stated that the pronunciation of particular sounds (voiceless nasals (triggered by nasal mutations), ll, ch) continued to represent difficulty.

The Cardiff academics are calling on more research that will result in the development of technologically-driven pronunciation exercises and more opportunities for learners to speak with a variety of native speakers. There’s a growing call for the implementation of phonetic instruction when it comes to teaching adult learners the individual sounds of the target language.

I can’t help think that for all the research offering poor prognoses for pronunciation in adult second language learning, the fault might not all be down to fossilized phonologies or ages. It looks like our learners haven’t been being equipped with the phonetic skills and knowledge to evaluate their own productions and improve. But we seem to be slowly realizing.

There are some aspect of the pronunciation of the language you’re learning that simply have to be mastered if you are going to communicate effectively. You’ll need to do at least a bit of discernable voiceless lateral frication (ll) in Welsh if you’re going to do some speaking (or pronounce the name of the ever popular beach-side village Llangrannog without irritating the locals). If you don’t make some progress with the tones of Mandarin, it’s going to be impossible to get by and you need to make some half decent attempts to differentiate all of Swedish’s vowels.

Because they cannot say “Qongqothwane”

When it comes to sounds, you are physically capable of producing all the sounds on the International Phonetic Association’s chart of the sounds of the world’s languages . Your mouth is an instrument that all other humans on earth also have. You are physically capable of making the click sounds of Xhosa, most famously broadcast to the Western World by Miriam Makeba’s fantastic music. You can also say the voiceless nasal sounds (ngh, nh, mh) of Welsh and its voiceless lateral fricative (ll). What’s stopping you is the fact that you don’t use these sounds in your language and so they don’t represent linguistic sounds. Another problem is that you can’t perceive these differences in the speech of other people because your brain has shut off these distinctions as they weren’t relevant to the language you were learning when you were a baby.

We do need to think about pronunciation if we’re to be ‘comfortably intelligible’. The challenge for language teachers is to find ways of helping you make these sounds as best as you can. There’s a lot of research saying we’ll never be native-like speakers of our second and third languages, but that shouldn’t stop us fulfilling our potential. I’ll never sound like a Swede when I order my coffee in Stockholm, but once in Finland, an Ålander said I “spoke Swedish like a Swede” and that (even if it was a politically motivated insult) is all the encouragement I need!

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