ADULT LANGUAGE LEARNERS ARE ACCENT MASTERS
A common myth in language learning is that adults are unable to master a second language, and especially the accent. It was once believed that there’s a “critical age” for language learning.
According to the theory, somewhere in the early teens a person’s accent is ‘fossilized’. In other words, after the teenage years, a person’s ability to acquire the accent of a second language is permanently frozen. Though widely accepted by linguists up until the 1990’s, this theory has been categorically disproven regarding all aspects of adult language learning, including accent.
Given the incredible neuroplasticity of the brain (its ability to change, adapt, and learn into middle-age and beyond), adult language learners routinely master a second language. In fact, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have proven that adults can learn a language to the level of fluency nearly as quickly as children. It’s all a question of time, not age.
Learning a language to near-native level is determined by how many hours per day a person (child or adult) is either immersed in a language or formally studies one. According to Dr. Joshua Hartshorne, who led the MIT study, “The ‘critical period’ happens to coincide with a number of social changes, any of which could diminish one’s ability, opportunity, or willingness to learn a new language. In many cultures, this age marks the transition to the workforce or to professional education, which may diminish opportunities to learn.” That’s to say, adult language learning is more about ‘opportunities to learn’ than a ‘critical age’ for learning. Research has also found that adults of every language background are nearly all extremely good at second language learning.
CRITICAL COMPONENTS OF ACCENT REDUCTION CLASSES AND TRAINING
Accent reduction classes teach second language learners how to pronounce the sounds in English that don’t exist in their first language. For adult learners, there are two critical components to speeding up this process.
- The first is to provide step-by-step instructions demonstrating how to use the tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw to produce specific sounds. Acquiring new pronunciation techniques is a physical skill.
- The second core component is that the adult learning process is a visual one. The leading research on accent learning proves that ‘how to’ manuals, voice-recognition with audio feedback, and/or the use of diagrams alone simply doesn’t work.
A learner needs an instructor (or a tongue avatar... yes there really is such a thing!), to provide real-time feedback. In fact, visual correlates of speech movement are a critical component to processing speech sounds in any language. Think about lip reading someone who’s talking to you from across the room at a noisy party. Or how much more difficult it is to speak with someone on the phone who has a very different accent than your own. Visual cues to both understanding an accent, and acquiring a new one, are key.
MASTERING NEW PRONUNCIATION TECHNIQUES
Accent acquisition is a lot like learning to play an instrument, which is also a visual process. Initially, the musician needs to look at his/her fingers while playing the notes. With practice, the new skill becomes second nature and looking at the hands is no longer necessary. It’s the same with pronunciation.
At first, learners need to see how they’re using, and how their instructor is using, their speech apparatus. Visual feedback in real-time is essential. With time and practice, however, the new pronunciation techniques become automatic.
Visual feedback is a foundational component of Accents International’s proprietary methodology (the Ravin Method®). Accents International instructors provide constant ‘back and forth’ guidance on sound production. After demonstrating ‘how to’ instructions for articulating a new sound, the instructor provides an average of 120 instances of live feedback per hour of face-to-face instruction. Face-to face training is a must. Onsite training is not. Accents International’s online learning platform allows learners, in individual and/or group accent reduction classes, to see and hear one another while located around the globe.
Feedback to a client learning to make the sound “V”, for example, may sound something like this:
“Great job. You’re almost there. You’re keeping your lips horizontal and biting your bottom lip. Now, slide your teeth about a centimeter toward your mouth until it reaches the very edge of your lip. While you’re gently biting your lip and making the v sound, feel how your lip vibrates... Nicely done!”
PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT
It’s one thing to learn how to perform a new task. It’s quite another to be able to repeatedly perform that task without having to give it a second thought. This process, from understanding something intellectually to understanding something experientially, is called skill generalization or, simply, ‘carryover’.
Going back to the analogy between learning to play an instrument and learning pronunciation, carryover is the goal and practice is the way to get there. With one notable exception; the amount of practice time it requires. Unlike music, accent acquisition doesn’t take an hour of practice a day. Hardly. With expert instruction, real-time feedback, and practice material that’s customized per the learner’s needs, acquiring pronunciation proficiency (per sound) takes about 15 minutes of practice, five days a week, over a course of approximately four weeks.
To learn more about the process of skill generalization and carryover, see How Your Brain Learns and Remembers. This is an easy to read, step-by-step explanation of the learning process for non-scientists. The takeaway: Practice Makes Permanence!