I’m very interested in adult education. Adults face a difficult challenge as students. Society sets up systems to help children learn. These systems have tests, grades, deadlines and teachers to guide students towards a set of learning goals.
Adults, on the other hand, do not have these systems immediately available to them. Most of the time, adult learners have to find their own motivation, allocate their own time and pay their own money in order to grow and develop themselves. And in our increasingly fast-paced, technology rich society, the ability to grow and develop oneself continuously is becoming more and more important.
As an English teacher, I believe that adult learners can accomplish their language learning goals, even if they are learning English later in life.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the Critical Period Hypothesis, and how adults are just as capable of learning a second language to a high level of proficiency as children. Yet, there is a clear difference between those who learned English as children and those who learned it as adults. Actually, there are a number of differences related to (among other things) grammar, vocabulary choice and idiomatic awareness. However, most people would say that the main difference between a child and adult learner of English is “the accent.”
There are many issues related to “English with an accent” that I will not discuss in this post. For now, it is enough to know that the traditional view of the native-speaker accent as the standard for proficient English ability is being challenged.
At the same time, there is no denying that while adult learners are capable of developing their English grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading and writing ability to a very high level, they will never speak English “like a native speaker.” In other words, they will have an accent. There is overwhelming research evidence supporting a critical period for pronunciation, and that after this critical period has passed, a learner’s pronunciation will probably always be judged as “non-native.”
However, in order to understand this research evidence, we first need to understand what English pronunciation ability is.
Generally speaking, we can understand English pronunciation in terms of two different levels: the first level is called the segmental level, which contains the basic sounds of words in English. At the segmental level, we can understand words in terms of how vowels and consonants connect to form syllables, and how different syllables connect to form words.
The other level is called the “suprasegmental level.” This level refers to the patterns of rhythm and stress that connect words into sentences and sentences into discourse.
Many researchers have looked at how these two levels of pronunciation interact with each other, and how this interaction influences a non-native English speaker’s ability to be understood by others.
Tracy Derwing and Murray Munro are two of the most important researchers in this area, and both have published a series of studies related to accent and understandability. Their research has provided evidence that suprasegmental features are more important for understandability than segmental features.
In other words, if someone says the English sentence, “This is my father,” and mispronounces the “th” sound as a “z” sound, but speaks with the correct rhythm and stress, then they will be more easily understood than someone who pronounces the “th” sound perfectly, but with incorrect rhythm and stress.
In addition to this, while there is strong evidence that adult English learners cannot learn to pronounce segmental features exactly like native speakers, there is also strong evidence that suprasegmental features can be learned and improved through practice and training. So, while English with an accent is inevitable for adult English learners, it is still possible for them to communicate effectively. In fact, it is very likely that, with enough perseverance and training, any adult English learner can eventually speak the language in a way that is understandable to almost any other English speaker. This is encouraging, given that the purpose of language learning is to understand and be understood by others.