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Is It Important for Learners to Speak Like a Native Speaker?

I do not think it is important for learners to speak a second or foreign language like a native speaker. To clarify my position, I have interpreted “speak” to mean having the same pronunciation and accent of a native speaker. Of course, a second or foreign language learner should try to use the same grammar and vocabulary like a native speaker. Trying to have the same pronunciation or accent like one for most learners is too much of a lofty goal for most adult learners.

Brown mentions this argument most directly in Chapter 3 in the section entitled “The Significance of Accent” on pages 62-65. The point of this section is to illustrate that evidence for the critical period hypothesis is most apparent in the inability of second or foreign language learners to acquire authentic pronunciation of the target language. The critical period is defined by Brown in his glossary as “a biologically determined period of life when language can be acquired more easily and beyond which time language is increasingly difficult to acquire.” This would rule out nearly all adult learners to acquire authentic pronunciation.

There are learners who have been able to acquire authentic pronunciation, but they are an exception. In my experience, adult learners who strive to achieve this goal are often frustrated. After years of practice, most of them either accept their “inauthentic” pronunciation, but some of them give up learning the language entirely. To relieve these learners from their frustration, I believe that the instructor should not expect them to have native-like pronunciation.

As for children, they can acquire authentic pronunciation more easily. As they continue to learn the language beyond the critical period, they may be able to be mistaken for a native speaker when heard. In this context, I believe it is important for instructors to encourage their learners to speak like a native speaker. Then the question is, “How do you know when your learners started learning to speak the language?” And I believe it is an important question to ask learners when they enter a second or foreign language classroom.

Even if learners learned how to speak before the critical period, I believe they are not guaranteed to speak like native speakers. First of all, perhaps they received instruction from a non-native speaker who modeled his or her accent. Even if the non-native instructor did not model his or her own speech, he or she would have used recordings in an accent that is not the target accent. For example, what if the learner eventually wanted to acquire American English but was taught a British or Australian English accent via recording? Another point of having a non-native speaker as an instructor is that he or she cannot adequately assess their pronunciation. My experience as an EFL teacher trainer has shown me that many non-native speaking instructors cannot tell the difference between various English accents.

This brings me to ask, “What is a native speaker?” It is easy to answer when learning the target language in the target country. As for English, most second or foreign language learners learn it in their home country as opposed to one of the many target countries. Not only is there is a difference between in accents between countries, but there can be more noticeable differences within the target country. When I teach pronunciation to adult learners, I like to ask them, “Which English accent would you like?” Most of them say my accent or “standard American English,” and then I disappoint them by saying that I don’t speak standard American English. Then I restore their confidence by explaining what standard American English according to their perspective. It is most often the language of newscasters or Hollywood celebrities.

In class, we discussed that most second language studies research the acquisition of European languages, most often English. Perhaps there is no evidence of the critical period hypothesis when Koreans learn Japanese or Urdu speakers learn Shona. This idea would also solve the problems of defining a native speaker if the total population of native speakers was small (in Papua New Guinea?) and perhaps there were little or no variation in accent. In these cases, the goal of achieving authentic pronunciation may be more realistic.

Lastly, I will take a look at the question again from the point of view of a learner who has no knowledge of this research, “It is important for me to speak like a native speaker.” I am now addressing the topic of motivation as covered in chapter 6. Because the importance is “for me,” I can say that the learner is intrinsically motivated. But then I have to understand why the learner places so much importance on speaking like a native speaker. If this learner is a young adult in China, one likely possibility is that she has an instrumental orientation (p170) to get her MBA in the United States. If this learner is refugee from Afghanistan who has just moved to Iran, perhaps he has an integrative orientation (p170) to blend in as quickly as possible. Rethinking this question to fit these contexts makes me answer, “Yes, or course, it is important to speak like a native speaker.”

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