Teach a Foreign Language in the Accent of the Listener?

A study from the University of Haifa shows that “perception of second language speech is easier when it is spoken in the accent of the listener and not in the ‘original’ accent of that language.” So if you are an American learning French, you will understand French better if it is spoken with an American accent rather than a native French accent. Sounds a little like common sense, right? The researchers say this is important is determining the cognitive factors associated with understanding and learning foreign languages; but as for teaching foreign languages, I’m not so sure that teaching exclusively in the non-native accent as the title of the article suggests is the best idea.

Perhaps at the very beginning stages of language learning, a non-native accent would be more helpful than a native accent in simply understanding the language. But if a non-native accent is the only one a learner ever hears, then s/he will have a hard time understanding all other accents as well as learning how to pronounce the language in a more native-like accent.  Students should be exposed to several native and non-native accents of the  language because obviously not every French speaker in the world speaks with the standard accent presented in learning materials. How many French language materials teach the Picardie or Belgian or Toulousian accents?

This leads into the native vs. non-native teacher question and just how much effect the teacher’s accent has on the students’ learning.  As long as the student gets enough input in the target language outside of the classroom, it really shouldn’t matter what accent the teacher has. Most classes meet a few hours per week, which is not sufficient enough for learning a language, so the student needs to listen and study as much as possible on his/her own. The teacher needs to be able to answer questions and explain the grammar and encourage student participation and motivation, but to me, the accent isn’t really all that important because shouldn’t the students be talking more than the teacher anyway?

What do you think about this study? Is it important or does it just reiterate what we already know?

English spoken with French accents

Let’s hope no one actually teaches English based on Franglais!

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  • Kathleen

    I’d agree that it doesn’t matter as much in the beginning stages of language learning, (my one and only HS French teacher had a pretty strong American accent and boy, am I glad I didn’t pick that up!) but as you continue towards fluency you’re more likely to pick up the habits of the accents you’re hearing, and as you listen to a particular accent more and more that’s going to be more apparent in your own speech. This is particularly apparent in my German, which I learned at university for a year before going to Bavaria for a few months’ immersion study. Even though most of my German study was interacting with other people who spoke German as a second language (including my teacher), my German is definitely tinged with a Bavarian accent/vocabulary. My French, on the other hand, which I’ve studied in New Jersey, Ontario, Quebec and Lyon, doesn’t have a discernably regional accent.

  • Kathleen

    I’d agree that it doesn’t matter as much in the beginning stages of language learning, (my one and only HS French teacher had a pretty strong American accent and boy, am I glad I didn’t pick that up!) but as you continue towards fluency you’re more likely to pick up the habits of the accents you’re hearing, and as you listen to a particular accent more and more that’s going to be more apparent in your own speech. This is particularly apparent in my German, which I learned at university for a year before going to Bavaria for a few months’ immersion study. Even though most of my German study was interacting with other people who spoke German as a second language (including my teacher), my German is definitely tinged with a Bavarian accent/vocabulary. My French, on the other hand, which I’ve studied in New Jersey, Ontario, Quebec and Lyon, doesn’t have a discernably regional accent.

  • http://www.tefl.net/alexcase Alex Case

    This was another one of those idiotic pieces that had little if any connection to the research. The research only proves that it is easier to understand (well, duh!) and says nothing about how that affects progress in language learning. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll pay for all journalists to take a course in basic science!
    .-= Alex Case´s last blog ..TEFL economics =-.

  • http://www.tefl.net/alexcase Alex Case

    This was another one of those idiotic pieces that had little if any connection to the research. The research only proves that it is easier to understand (well, duh!) and says nothing about how that affects progress in language learning. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll pay for all journalists to take a course in basic science!
    .-= Alex Case´s last blog ..TEFL economics =-.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com/ Zhu

    I think that’s what a lot of old-school English teachers in France have been doing for years!

    None of my teachers was a native English speaker and for most of them, their last trip in an English-speaking country must have been shortly after WWII. It didn’t really help me later on when I had to understand native speakers…!
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..Winter Fun =-.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com Zhu

    I think that’s what a lot of old-school English teachers in France have been doing for years!

    None of my teachers was a native English speaker and for most of them, their last trip in an English-speaking country must have been shortly after WWII. It didn’t really help me later on when I had to understand native speakers…!
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..Winter Fun =-.

  • http://www.streetsmartlanguagelearning.com/ Street-Smart Language Learning

    To lazily copy and paste the comment I put on Steve Kaufmann’s website about this, that sounds like a terrible idea to me. Trying to learn a target language from non-native speakers with poor accents is like trying to learn business Japanese from children’s books; sure, it’s easier, but it’s not going to get you where you need to be.

    The research is deserving of a Captain Obvious award. The only thing I think it shows is that the way foreign-language learners are learning the accent of their target language (and, in particular, those foreign-language learners) is not working. This indicates the need for a better approach to learning the accent, rather than the benefits of dumbing it down.
    .-= Street-Smart Language Learning´s last blog ..If there weren’t so many frickin’ naked dudes, ChatRoulette could be a good tool for language learning =-.

  • http://www.streetsmartlanguagelearning.com/ Street-Smart Language Learning

    To lazily copy and paste the comment I put on Steve Kaufmann’s website about this, that sounds like a terrible idea to me. Trying to learn a target language from non-native speakers with poor accents is like trying to learn business Japanese from children’s books; sure, it’s easier, but it’s not going to get you where you need to be.

    The research is deserving of a Captain Obvious award. The only thing I think it shows is that the way foreign-language learners are learning the accent of their target language (and, in particular, those foreign-language learners) is not working. This indicates the need for a better approach to learning the accent, rather than the benefits of dumbing it down.
    .-= Street-Smart Language Learning´s last blog ..If there weren’t so many frickin’ naked dudes, ChatRoulette could be a good tool for language learning =-.

  • http://blondeinfrance.blogspot.com/ Andromeda

    After having only native speakers since kindergarten, I HATED that my high school French teacher wasn’t and stopped French until college, when there were native speakers again. It just sounded too awful to sit through a class with her, of course I understood everything, but yuck. (This might be more of a French attitude thing though, haha. Once, in 5th grade, the Parisian teacher yelled at us for using the Belgian words for numbers we had learned from the math teacher, saying it wasn’t “real French”!)

    However, learning German in college, I only had non-native, we did lots of language lab hours, and I don’t have any particular trouble understanding the native accent (understanding the vocabulary is another story, lol). I think you’re right that most of the (adult) acquisition comes outside the classroom, and the teacher’s accent doesn’t impact the final outcome as much. If it’s easier for students to understand the words in their accent, it could help them from getting too discouraged in class so they’ll continue to keep learning on their own.
    .-= Andromeda´s last blog ..YAY!! =-.

  • http://blondeinfrance.blogspot.com Andromeda

    After having only native speakers since kindergarten, I HATED that my high school French teacher wasn’t and stopped French until college, when there were native speakers again. It just sounded too awful to sit through a class with her, of course I understood everything, but yuck. (This might be more of a French attitude thing though, haha. Once, in 5th grade, the Parisian teacher yelled at us for using the Belgian words for numbers we had learned from the math teacher, saying it wasn’t “real French”!)

    However, learning German in college, I only had non-native, we did lots of language lab hours, and I don’t have any particular trouble understanding the native accent (understanding the vocabulary is another story, lol). I think you’re right that most of the (adult) acquisition comes outside the classroom, and the teacher’s accent doesn’t impact the final outcome as much. If it’s easier for students to understand the words in their accent, it could help them from getting too discouraged in class so they’ll continue to keep learning on their own.
    .-= Andromeda´s last blog ..YAY!! =-.

  • http://www.american-in-france.com/ cynthia in chambery

    I know this is true from personal experience. When I lived in Italy I understood the foreigners speaking Italian better than the Italians speaking Italian. I always wondered why that was true. Now I know. Cynthia
    .-= cynthia in chambery´s last blog ..Paris, France: Visiting the Orsay Museum (Musee d’Orsay) =-.

  • http://www.american-in-france.com cynthia in chambery

    I know this is true from personal experience. When I lived in Italy I understood the foreigners speaking Italian better than the Italians speaking Italian. I always wondered why that was true. Now I know. Cynthia
    .-= cynthia in chambery´s last blog ..Paris, France: Visiting the Orsay Museum (Musee d’Orsay) =-.

  • alp

    Hello jennie
    today is the intenational mother language day but in iran my mother language(Azerbaijani) is
    forbidden to teaching.
    there are 30 milion Azerbaijani people in iran but they can’t learn their language at school
    or university.
    don’t forget them…

  • alp

    Hello jennie
    today is the intenational mother language day but in iran my mother language(Azerbaijani) is
    forbidden to teaching.
    there are 30 milion Azerbaijani people in iran but they can’t learn their language at school
    or university.
    don’t forget them…

  • http://www.lindamathieu.com/ Linda

    I was in Thailand with my French husband when a man told my husband that he had a really good English accent. I said, “What do you mean he has a good accent? I have a good accent, I’m American.” I think it may be easier to understand a language by a non native speaker-maybe they go slower and speak more distinctly? I would never want to learn French from someone in Quebec-I find their French very confusing.
    .-= Linda´s last blog ..Turbans =-.

  • http://www.lindamathieu.com Linda

    I was in Thailand with my French husband when a man told my husband that he had a really good English accent. I said, “What do you mean he has a good accent? I have a good accent, I’m American.” I think it may be easier to understand a language by a non native speaker-maybe they go slower and speak more distinctly? I would never want to learn French from someone in Quebec-I find their French very confusing.
    .-= Linda´s last blog ..Turbans =-.

  • http://ma-nouvelle-vie-en-france.blogspot.com/ L

    I would hate to learn a foreign language from a non-native speaker (or hearing non-native speaker audio), even if it was ‘easier’ to understand them initially.
    I think if you kept listening to a non-native accent you would eventually speak like this yourself.
    .-= L´s last blog ..L’amitié =-.

  • http://ma-nouvelle-vie-en-france.blogspot.com L

    I would hate to learn a foreign language from a non-native speaker (or hearing non-native speaker audio), even if it was ‘easier’ to understand them initially.
    I think if you kept listening to a non-native accent you would eventually speak like this yourself.
    .-= L´s last blog ..L’amitié =-.

  • kevin de bruxelles

    They did the opposite to me at a French language school when I first got to Brussels. The teacher played a tape of a Canadian guy speaking French and it was almost impossible to understand. After hearing that tape, normal French was much easier!

  • kevin de bruxelles

    They did the opposite to me at a French language school when I first got to Brussels. The teacher played a tape of a Canadian guy speaking French and it was almost impossible to understand. After hearing that tape, normal French was much easier!

  • http://www.barncathollow.com/ Lucas

    As an addendum to my previous comment, I think a comparison list between French, Spanish & Mallorquin/Catalan would be fascinating. Have you studied the latter much?
    .-= Lucas´s last blog ..NERTZ! =-.

  • http://www.barncathollow.com Lucas

    As an addendum to my previous comment, I think a comparison list between French, Spanish & Mallorquin/Catalan would be fascinating. Have you studied the latter much?
    .-= Lucas´s last blog ..NERTZ! =-.

  • http://www.marieinlille.blogspot.com/ Marie

    I am French and I was taught English in school, then High-School by native English-speaking teachers and that didn’t help me get a good accent. Because we don’t have a good method to teach foreign languages in France.
    I got really really better after a year or so living in the US. Because I was surrounded by English, in the street, in stores, on TV and that was great.
    My daughter went to daycare and preschool and was really fluent in English. While she understood French, she always answered in English. And when she spoke French, she had…American accent !! Unfortunately, the same happened when we moved back.
    Luckily, she is now practicing her English (but not at home) so she got back her wonderful American accent. She has hard time understanding British people.
    So yes, with your accent you might understand better but you won’t learn.
    The best way I found is being in the country and/or watching TV in the foreign language with subtitles in that very same language. It’s really powerful.
    And I think that no matter how good is the teacher, if it’s not his native language, you will miss a lot.

  • http://www.marieinlille.blogspot.com Marie

    I am French and I was taught English in school, then High-School by native English-speaking teachers and that didn’t help me get a good accent. Because we don’t have a good method to teach foreign languages in France.
    I got really really better after a year or so living in the US. Because I was surrounded by English, in the street, in stores, on TV and that was great.
    My daughter went to daycare and preschool and was really fluent in English. While she understood French, she always answered in English. And when she spoke French, she had…American accent !! Unfortunately, the same happened when we moved back.
    Luckily, she is now practicing her English (but not at home) so she got back her wonderful American accent. She has hard time understanding British people.
    So yes, with your accent you might understand better but you won’t learn.
    The best way I found is being in the country and/or watching TV in the foreign language with subtitles in that very same language. It’s really powerful.
    And I think that no matter how good is the teacher, if it’s not his native language, you will miss a lot.

  • http://www.franceprofonde.blogspot.com/ Betty C.

    I read about this research and felt that the sample was very small and it did focus on understanding, not learning.

    That said, I do think we need to get away from “native speaker only” accents in classes and expose students to many accents, because that’s what they will be hearing in their future (at least as far as English is concerned — just realized this may not be so true for other languages.)
    .-= Betty C.´s last blog ..Chez Cécile et Aimé =-.

  • http://www.franceprofonde.blogspot.com Betty C.

    I read about this research and felt that the sample was very small and it did focus on understanding, not learning.

    That said, I do think we need to get away from “native speaker only” accents in classes and expose students to many accents, because that’s what they will be hearing in their future (at least as far as English is concerned — just realized this may not be so true for other languages.)
    .-= Betty C.´s last blog ..Chez Cécile et Aimé =-.

  • Katie

    Ugh, this frustrates me to no end. Sure, it's easier for them. So is not giving them homework or teaching any new lessons. That doesn't mean it's better! A person's language skills are best assessed by their ability to utilize and understand the language in a REAL LIFE situation. I don't really care if a language student has mastered their teacher's version of the language, they need to master it as the language is actually used!

  • Katie

    Ugh, this frustrates me to no end. Sure, it's easier for them. So is not giving them homework or teaching any new lessons. That doesn't mean it's better! A person's language skills are best assessed by their ability to utilize and understand the language in a REAL LIFE situation. I don't really care if a language student has mastered their teacher's version of the language, they need to master it as the language is actually used!

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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