Families & the Community

Perfect Accents Not Realistic for Older Language Learners, Linguists Say

By Lesli A. Maxwell — April 04, 2012 1 min read
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I am an adult language learner. After several years of lying fallow, I have taken up my pursuit of learning Spanish with a great teacher who comes to my office twice a week for one-on-one lessons.

In nearly every class, Francisca and I have lengthy conversations in Spanish about our lives, as well as subject matter that I cover in my job here at Education Week: English-language learners, public schools, education reform efforts, etc. She works closely with me on building the vocabulary and academic language I need to develop my skills for conducting interviews with Spanish-speaking students and their family members. She’s very skilled at asking me series of questions that I must thoughtfully consider and answer. She wants me to talk, talk, talk. She pays attention to my conjugation and makes corrections as she should, but she doesn’t obsess over every mistake I know I make when it comes to perfect pronunciation and accentuation.

According to thethinking among some language acquisition specialists these days, this is exactly the right approach for teaching an adult language learner like me. (Thanks to Time.com columnist @anniemurphypaul for writing about this!)

The ideal of sounding like a native Spanish speaker is unrealistic for someone like me, but I also shouldn’t give up on perfecting my pronunciations as I strive for the greater goal of being able to effectively communicate with Spanish speakers, these linguists believe. The youngest language learners, research shows, have the best shot at developing native-like second language skills.

The Time.com piece made me wonder how much older English-learners in public schools—especially those immigrant students who come to the U.S. in middle school and beyond—are focused on perfecting their pronunciations and trying to shed their accents. How much are their teachers focused on that part of learning the language, and what does that mean for how well these students learn to communicate effectively?

I’d love to hear from teachers on this one.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.