A few weeks ago at parent night, a mom asked me if I was teaching the kids the accent, if I was really going to teach them proper pronunciation. This is something of course I could talk about for days, but there was only a few minutes left in the rotation, so I gave her the quicky answer.
I’ll teach the pronunciation, I said, but they’re American teenagers, so I’ll teach them… but then they have to actually choose to do it.
The mom gave a shrug and a nod that said, yah, that’s the best we can do.
The thing about teaching pronunciation to Americans (REGARDLESS OF AGE) in a second language context is that the students will pronounce however they damn well please, and usually gringo-horrifying is good enough. There are basically three issues: 1) disbelief, 2) unfamiliar phonetics, and 3) phonological critical period.
Everyone, EVERYONE wants to talk about phonological critical period like it’s the reason they can never never never learn a language, and they wear it proudly like a sash across their chest, next to a sash that says “I took French and and now I just get so mixed up all the time” and the backpack that says “they just talk so fast.”
There are two things that I don’t want to hear from you: one is that you’re too old to learn language; the other has to do with your fear of karaoke. Those stories are too boring and too ignorant to sit through. Seriously; wet blanket.
It may be the case that phonological critical period is a real thing; that adult brains don’t lock-on to, analyze, and regenerate linguistic structures the way babies do. Hooray. It occurs to me that I can do a bunch of linking here, but you’ll miss the point, so I won’t. If it’s in your heart to go and do a bunch of linguistic research so that you can misinterpret it and declare yourself a hopeless case for language learning, you’ll have to do it your damn self.
If the phonological critical period really shut down any and all language learning the way the wet blankets say it does, then no adults would be learning language, there would be no speech therapy, and no comedians would be doing impressions.
When I was a little kid, I trilled my /r/ everyday. However, I didn’t take Spanish until I was 18 years old and a freshman in college. So when I tried to trill an /r/, it didn’t happen. I had to re-learn that /r/.
My junior year of college, I found myself studying in the south of France, and I decided I was going to learn that French gurgled /R/. I knew from Linguistics 201 that babies babble to practice phonemes, so every day before I went to sleep, I lay in bed, quietly gurgling my French /R/ for a couple minutes before drifting off to sleep. It didn’t come to me the first day, or the first week… it was weeks, actually, before I came up with a passable French /R/.
It wasn’t until I was back in the US that I learned how to to pronounce the French vowels [y], [ø], and [œ]. I had always wondered how on earth to make those sounds, and then I read in some phonology class that it’s just a matter of saying some vowels I already knew, with rounded “oo” lips. So, for example, to say [y], which is the vowel in cul, you simply say the English word “key” through rounded lips. You can finish it with a little whistle, for good measure.
Now because of phonological critical period, I can’t really hear the difference between [y] and [u] in regular speech; my brain did not crystallize around that difference when it was young enough. Whenever I’m in a life-or-death [y] vs.[u] situation, I grit my teeth, close my eyes, and reach for my cyanide pill. Actually… I simply ask whether it’s [y] or [u], and, you know, they tell me. Regardless of me not hearing the difference, I can make my mouth do the difference all day long, and it’s easy enough to tell from French spelling when to do [y] and when to do [u]. So even though I’m not native to those sounds, I know how to make my mouth do them.
So 3) phonological critical period? It’s barely a speed bump along my way; it’s not forcing me to sound gringo-horrifying. I took care of 2) unfamiliar phonetics by taking phonology in college (basically I learned how to work my mouth) and by practicing. So now that those two tiny speedbumps are out of the way, let’s talk about what’s really condemning me to hear all these gringo-horrifying accents…
The clearest example I can give is that one time my boy B came back to the fraternity house from his French 101 class, and told me that they had learned how to pronounce that French gurgled /R/ sound. He said the girls in the class flatly refused to do it. It felt weird.
Here’s the deal; here’s why “it’s up to them” was the best response I could give that concerned mom about that gringo-horrible accent. I can teach the students (adolescents or adults) about phonology; I can have them repeat native-like pronunciation beautifully, I can threaten them under pain of failure that they MUST do the pronunciation, but, in the end, they still come out speaking like Honky Joe and the Majorettes.
Because it feels weird. Because people will think I’m trying too hard. Because having an accent is ok; other people can understand me. Because that’s just who I am; that’s my identity.
All kinds of bullshit; and basically it all boils down to disbelief. They believe that making that sound is normal.
In some cases, it is acceptable. I remember the first time I say a Maybelline commercial when I was in France, but instead of a beautiful French model speaking English with pouty French accent, it was… brace yourself… an all-American looking 20-something speaking French with a horrible American accent, the French language coming out her mouth awkwardly, it sounded like she was vomiting letter blocks. My French friend explained at the time that they found the American accent sexy. Sometimes only cute, but it was definitely on the positive side of the continuum. (I hoped to find an example on YouTube, but it seems that American actors nowadays are either getting dubbed into French by French actors or getting dubbed by French actors. Either way, they are getting dubbed.)
So once, because I was bored, I started talking to my French class in a clownish American accent, and to my surprise, the class was actually horrified. Ok, stop! they said, stop stop stop stop. Do we really sound like that? they asked, knowing full well they really did sound like that.
So then one of the girls asks (direct quote), “Are we… supposed to… try.. to do a French accent?” This was a 4th year class, the kids that had such an interest in French that they actually took the elective senior year class… and they were asking me if they were supposed to make an effort. The idea was so foreign to them.
I’m pretty sure with that particular French class, and with most of my Spanish classes, the idea is to not appear to your peers like you’re trying to hard. In fact, on the rare occasion when someone comes into class actually trying to do the pronunciation, they largely get sneered at.
Can they do it in the first place? Oh yes. Oh yes they can; I make them repeat every day, and when I put on a Speedy González accent, they repeat in a Speedy González accent; I also do Caribbean, European, Argentinian… Oh yes, and they get into it, and do the intonation and everything, as long as they’re all repeating together. Who cares, no amount of vanilla Andean accent on my part is going to get reproduced when they are called to speak individually.
Disbelief kicks in and particularly with teenagers, self-consciousness, and someone’s always waiting with a sneer or a scoff for the slightest whiff of effort. I can get them to repeat a Spanish “no” for days, but two seconds later, ask them if they are chewing gum, and they’ll spontaneously lay a big fat two-syllable American “no,” the kind that starts with an “nuh” and ends with a “oh.”
So is it hopeless?
No of course not. People shed their L1 accents every day. Usually it’s because they know or meet native speakers they look up to, and try to copy them… or at least they begin to hear their own awkward block-vomiting. If you can get that self-consciousness to work AGAINST the L1 accent, that’s really the Holy Grail.
Finally, there are some people who have had Latinos in their life for a long time, and care deeply for them, but still talk with day one American accents if/when they speak Spanish (or whatever their respective language is). What’s their problem?
They’re problem is… nothing. They’re doing fine. They’ve made that accent work for them. They’re just going to be those people with that accent.
But if it’s something they want to work on, what they have to do is start practicing every day. Usually if they’re in a relationship with a native speaker, that native speaker won’t be helpful, because the relationship already has an official language and it’s not the one you’re trying to learn… so you might have to practice with someone else. Anyway the important thing is to practice every day. Why would you expect your brain to make pathways for something you only practice intermittently? Do you know anyone who ever became fluent at anything through intermittent practice?
And yes, for the case of accent, it might help to take a phonology class, or a speech and hearing science class, to figure out what your mouth is and isn’t doing.
Here’s the deal: Spanish is like English; it’s a huge international language with lots of regional variation that everyone has heard on tv and radio. Spanish speaking countries are immigrant countries, so culturally speaking, people are used to hearing foreign accents, and tend to stand there and use educated guessing, common sense, and will power to try to figure you out. They are forgiving of foreign accents.
Then, on the other hand, there are the populations who do not have a history of integrating waves upon waves of immigrants: China, France, Italy… These are countries where you have to be more accurate with your pronunciation; the bar is simply set higher in these cultures than it is for English or Spanish as a second language.
I feel like I should end this post with some kind of advice, so here’s the summary: conquer your disbelief, and practice working on your accent. If you can, take a phonology course.
One last story: the Chinese people who I met who speak Spanish speak it brilliantly. Some of them never spent time in a Spanish speaking country. Even though I am loathe to acknowledge any kind of “language talent” other than the regular instinct for language acquisition that we all have, I was SHOCKED at the level of Spanish fluency that some of these Chinese people appeared to have, mostly because it was better than my own Spanish, and I am crippled by vanity. It was more than a few ethnically Chinese people speaking Spanish as a second language, and on the average I found it MUCH higher than the average level of English among Chinese people.
However, when I’d tell Chinese people they should learn Spanish, they said no no no, it’s hard. Impossible. How do you know it’s hard, I’d ask them? And they’d plead the exact same thing every time: Spanish has a trilled /r/. The fear is enough to send them into dry heaves. These are educated people, usually they speak English, many of them know the International Phonetic Alphabet… which means they have studied articulatory phonetics. Usually it was people past their critical period, but people who easily pronounce a clear distinction between an /l/ and and /r/ even when they don’t hear it (a story for another time!). So these are people that have all the right experience with second language phonology… yet here they are, acting like they’re going to die if they have to trill an /r/.
Of course I tell them, yes, Spanish has a trilled /r/, but you don’t have to do it. There are probably tens of thousands of second language AND NATIVE speakers of Spanish who do not do the trilled /r/, and it doesn’t cause any confusion. Do you understand? That sound the trilled /r/ is not a deal-breaker. You can use your Chinese /r/, an American /r/… or better yet, a Japanese /r/ (they perceive Japanese as an easy-peasy language to learn) and everyone will understand you perfectly. (psst! the Japanese flapped /r/ is the same as the Spanish flapped /r/.. as well as the flapped American /d/!)
Invariably, regardless of any of my awesome logic, they would look at me straight in the eye, and say, NO. IT’S HARD.
And you know what? They’re right; if they believe so hard that something is impossible for them, that’s probably enough to make it impossible. For them.