A pragmatic approach to teaching English
Dramatic differences between how people use a newly learned language can determine how well they are understood, new research has found.
University of Bristol (UK) researcher Talia Isaacs led a study which found that the language-related factors that underlie what makes someone sound accented were very similar regardless of a person’s mother tongue.
The study, titled: ‘Second Language Comprehensibility Revisited: Investigating the Effects of Learner Background’ compared the speaking performances of 60 adult learners of English from four different language groups: Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, French/Spanish and Farsi.
“We found, for example, vowel and consonant errors universally make people sound accented,” Ms Isaacs said.
“Yet it’s not always these factors that affect how easy or difficult to understand a person is.
“Whereas producing inaccurate vowels and consonants impeded how easy Chinese learners were for English listeners to understand, for Hindi or Urdu learners, it was appropriate use of vocabulary and grammar that helped their ability to be understood,” she said.
The study found foreign accents often receive an undue amount of attention because they are highly noticeable to listeners. Previous research has shown that untrained listeners can tell native and non-native speakers apart after listening to speech that is very short.
“Despite listeners’ sensitivity to accent, there is growing agreement among language teachers and researchers that trying to reduce a learner’s accent is not an appropriate goal,” Ms Isaacs said.
“This is mostly because people do not need to sound like native speakers to successfully integrate into a new society or to effectively carry out their professional tasks.
“In addition, sounding like a native speaker is an unrealistic language learning goal for adults and also perhaps an undesirable one due to issues of identity.
“So most language experts agree that what counts the most in oral communication is for learners to be readily understandable to their conversational partners.
By picking apart the aspects of speech that are essential for being understood from those factors that might be noticeable or irritating but do not actually impede communication, English teachers can target the most vital aspects of speech their students need to get their messages across,” Ms Isaacs said.
She said that being able to communicate effectively in a foreign language is a challenge faced by many.
For newcomers to a country, conveying a message in a language that is not their mother tongue is often necessary to access vital services, perform well on the job, achieve good grades and integrate into society.
“But what we found is that it’s possible that speakers of different native languages face different challenges in making themselves easily understood,” Ms Isaacs said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist