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Based on the most reliable empirical evidence, what is the best method now known for
adult learners to attain a native-like accent in a second language? What does the effectiveness
of this method tell us about the nature of phonological and phonetic competence?

The adult native-like accent issue:

In Second Language Acquisition (SLA) studies, the L2 pronunciation acquisition,

especially, the adult native-like accent is regarded as a very difficult task. In fact, L2

acquisition can be influenced by many factors, such as motivation, the amount of L1 use, the

method of pronunciation instruction, but none of these factors can overcome the effect of age

(Levis 2005). According to Lennberg's (1967) Critical Period of Hypothesis (CPH), a

biologically based period from about two to puberty, most L2 adult learners exhibit

nonnative-like accent due to a biological limitation on language acquisition after critical

period (Li 2015). This hypothesis assumes that language acquisition is blocked by a loss of

“cerebral plasticity” which is called “language lateralization”. Lennberg (1967) suggested

that this lateralization of brain can explain not only the disappearance of automatic

acquisition from mere exposure to a given language after puberty, but also the reason why the

adult native-like accent is so difficult to acquire.

Except a loss of cerebral plasticity, the adult learners might have larger amount of L1

experience than the younger learners so that it has a negative influence on the effectiveness of

L2 input due to the dominant storage of L1 linguistic form in the brain. The biological-based

CPH raised a lot of researches on the pronunciation instructions with a new direction and

view. Before 1960s, the pronunciation instruction was guided by the nativeness principle that

assumed the native-like pronunciation in a foreign language is possible and desirable to

achieve. Later the intelligibility principle grew quickly and guided the research and pedagogy

of pronunciation instruction based on the CPH framework. This new direction, intelligibility

principle, assumes that successful communication can be achieved even thought their

expression is with a noticeable foreign accent. In addition, there is no clear evidence in

support of the correlation between accent and understanding, although certain types of

pronunciation errors may result in impaired comprehensibility. It is assumed that the impaired

L2 speech is resulted from particular pronunciation features rather than from nonnative-like

accent. Since these particular features are regarded as having particular effects on impaired

communication (Levis 2005). For example, in L2 Chinese speech, L2 speaker want to say Wo

xihuan yu. ‘I like fish’ but they say Wo xihuan wu‘I like five’. That [+/-rounded] feature

would cause misunderstanding. Therefore, it is suggested that the effort on native-like accent

was an unrealistic burden for teachers and learners (Li 2015).

The relationship between accent and comprehension

Although accent is not regarded as having determining effect on comprehension, it is

treated as an important aspect in language learning according to the CEFR (Common

European Framework of Reference for Languages). Studies on the relationship between

accent and comprehension showed that the familiarity of accents to the listener has more

influence on comprehension rather than the similarity between listeners’ different accents

(Tauroza & Luk 2016). Generally speaking, the nonnative-like accents are unfamiliar rather

than dissimilar to the native speakers, so as to lead to the ineffectual performance that results

in negative identity to the L2 speaker (Morley 1991). Therefore, some empirical literature

(Derwing & Munro 2005, Falkert 2017, Seferolu 2005) suggests that both mutual

intelligibility and accent are important in pronunciation instruction.

Pronunciation Instruction in Second Language Acquisition (SLA)

In pronunciation instruction studies, the empirical researches are generally conducted

with respects to different types and focus of pronunciation instruction in classroom or

Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). According to Loewen’s (2011) introduction

on the SLA instructions, it can be divided into instructed SLA and naturistic SLA. The former
occurs in L2 classroom where focus on “any systemetic attempt to enable or facilitate

language learning by manipulating the mechanism of learning (p.576)” and the later occurs in

the use of L2 language in daily life. Instructed SLA is further divided into the

meaning-focused instruction (MFI) and focus on form in context (FonF) and focus on forms

(FonFS). The first type treats language as a tool for communication rather than an object of

study on itself, thus it emphasizes that language instructions should overall focus on the

communication of meaning in L2 class (e.g., communicative language teaching,

content-based instruction, and task-based language teaching). FonF instruction gave students

a training program for the linguistic element, so as to language is presented isolatedly from

the communicative context. This approach is characterized by corrective feedback in

response to learners' error during communicative activities. FonFS instruction is a traditional

explicit rule instruction, students are given a lot of explicit rules for linguistic form rather

than using it for communication in class (Loewen 2011). As to the focus of pronunciation

instructions, most researches focus on three levels: the segmental instruction in lowest level,

the suprasegmental instruction in intermedia level, and the discourse instruction in high level.

In addition, the suprasegmental level is also called “prosody” level, it serves to link the

segmental level with discourse level and determine the accent.

Empirical evidences

There are a lot of empirical studies that support their opinions about the effectiveness of

their pronunciation instructions with evidences and they don’t support each other. Therefore,

we review two studies that compared multiples experiments on the effectiveness of

pronunciation instructions. Saito (2012) initiates a study on the effect of instruction on L2

pronunciation with a synthesis of 15 Quasi-Experimental Intervention Studies. 15

experiments were coded according to three independent variables: (a) focus of instruction

(segmental-based instruction, suprasegmental-based instruction and the teaching of

pronunciation rules regarding syllable structure), (b) type of instruction (FonF1, FonFS2 and

FonM 3 ) and (c) type of outcome measure (Controlled constructed response 4 and Free

constructed response5). The result showed that no significant different in the improvement of

pronunciation among different focus in controlled level 6 , such as segmental and

suprasegmental instruction. These results showed that both segmental and suprasegmental

instructions are effective to the learners. However, such effectiveness are found in controlled

level rather than in spontaneous level. For example, only 1/5 segment-based cases and 1/7

suprasegmental-based cases showed improvement in spontaneous level. However, different

types of instruction revealed a relative significant variable. For example, FonFS is

characterized with decontextualized practice (e.g., mechanical drills and repetition) but FonF

and MFI take context into practice. According to the result, FonFS showed improvement only

at a controlled level, while FonF enable learners to achieve improvement at a controlled level

and a spontaneous level. In addition, in their Japanese case, the small improvement from

FonFS instruction is only found at the immediate posttests but a large amount of

improvement that resulted from FonF instruction can maintained its gain even after one

month. It is obvious that the effect of context benefits the pronunciation acquisition. Saito

took Lyster’s (2007) comment on the role of meaning in language learning that “integrating

language focus into meaning-oriented classrooms is hypothesized to help students establish

form-meaning mappings as well as to promote proceduralization of their declarative

knowledge” (p.850). Trofimovich and Gatbonton’s (2006) work is also in support of the

benefit from context in pronunciation instructions. They pointed out that communicative L2

interaction required preplanned form-focused activities that are considered as contexualized

FonF: draw learner's attention to form in controlled context & communicative context
FonFS: only in controlled context (via mechanical drills, choral repetition without the actual use )
FonM: engaged in communicative learning tasks without any overt focus on pronunciation form (coded as
focus-on-meaning instruction)
Controlled constructed response: word-reading task, sentence-reading task, paragraph-reading tasks
Free constructed response: picture-description tasks, short lecture on a prepare topic
The result is measured in controlled level (closed-end question)and spontaneous level(open-end question).
cue and it influences not only on "accuracy" but also on "fluency".

Another meta-analysis (Thomson & Derwing 2014) investigated the effectiveness of L2

pronunciation instruction based on seventy-five L2 pronunciation studies, particularly their

methods and result. They compared Classroom Instruction (61%) and Computer Assisted

Pronunciation Teaching (CAPT) (39%) and both focus on segmental and suprasegmental.

Their survey suggested a significant impact from explicit instruction of phonological form,

because it draws learners’ attention to the phonetic information rather than naturalistic input.

This conclusion was supported by previous work (Levis 2005) that the L2 learners’

sensitivity to L2 pronunciation would be enhanced. Besides, the method of CALL is often

used in the pronunciation instruction, but no agreement with its effectiveness on accents or

other pronunciation acquisition (Derwing & Munro 2005, Seferolu 2005).

The nature of linguistic competence and performance

People are sensitive to accented speech, they can easily detect a variety of accents in

their communitive environment by relying on multiple cues such as segmental variation and

prosodic factors (Derwing & Munro 2005). For example, many Taiwanese have problems

with distinguishing standard nasal vowels (e.g., 陳 chen and 成 cheng) or dental-alveolar

consonants (e.g., 三 san and 山 shan), but none of them are recognized as non-native speaker,

even though their non-standard segmental sounds are similar to the L2 learners’ speech. The

prosodic cues are more salience than the segmental cue to determine the accent detection.

Chomsky (1965) distinguished linguistic ability between competence and performance.

Competence is the underlying knowledge of the system of a language while performance is

the linguistic output that is actually used in real world. The difference between competence

and performance can explain why one can "know" a linguistic form but still might not be able

to produce it well. Derwing & Munro (2005) mentioned that native listener are sensitive to

nonnative production and they can detect foreign accented speech by relying on multiple cues
(e.g., segmental variation, prosodic factors). These cues are components of phonology which

is known as the mental grammar of sound system. All speakers can recognize any accents that

are different from them without any training. Thus, we can say that the recognition of

nonnative-like accent is the native speakers' competence. Since linguistic competence enables

us to create and judge the correctness of the linguistic form we never hear before. In contrast,

performance is the actual utterance including speech errors, it may reflect competence,

especially L2 speech.


In general, the L2 competence and performance grow along with the proficiency of L2

language, but L2 pronunciation is different from other aspects of L2 acquisition in the way it

is not tied to proficiency (Thomson & Derwing 2014). That is, a L2 beginner can have better

pronunciation than the L2 advancer. In conclusion, the production of accent contains the

performance while the detection of accent involves the competence. However, studies

showed the explicit instruction would be the effective method in teaching L2 accent. The

nature of phonological competence is based on the mental rules and constraints, it is

developed in L1 but it has to be taught in adult L2 acquisition. However, the challenge of

native-like accent shows the nature of phonetic is performance. These empirical studies are

essential to improving our understanding of the relationship between ‘accent’ and

‘pronunciation teaching’.

Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M. J. 2005. Second Language Accent and Pronunciation Teaching:
A Research-Based Approach. TESOL Quarterly, 39(3). doi:10.2307/3588486
Falkert, A. 2017. The relevance of accent in L2 pronunciation instruction: a matter of
teaching cultures or language ideologies? International Journal of Pedagogies and
Learning, 11(3), 259-270. doi:10.1080/22040552.2016.1272533
Hardison, D. M. 2005. Contextualized Computer-Based L2 Prosody Training: Evaluating the
Effects of Discourse Context and Video Input. CALICO J, 22(2), 175-190.
Heydari, P., & Bagheri, M. S. 2012. Error Analysis: Sources of L2 Learners’ Errors. Theory
and Practice in Language Studies, 2(8). doi:10.4304/tpls.2.8.1583-1589
Lee, J., Jang, J., & Plonsky, L. 2015. The Effectiveness of Second Language Pronunciation
Instruction: A Meta-Analysis. Applied Linguistics, 36(3), 345-366.
Levis, J. M. 2005. Changing Contexts and Shifting Paradigms in Pronunciation Teaching.
TESOL Quarterly, 39(3). doi:10.2307/3588485
Li, Z. 2015. Can Adults Attain a Native-Like Accent in Their Second Language? Sino-US
English Teaching, 12(6). doi:10.17265/1539-8072/2015.06.001
Loewen, S. 2011. Focus on Form. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of Research in Second
Language Teaching and Learning (Vol. II, pp. 576-592). New York: Routledge.
Saito, K. 2012. Effects of Instruction on L2 Pronunciation Development: A Synthesis of 15
Quasi-Experimental Intervention Studies. TESOL Quarterly, 46(4), 842-854.
Seferolu, G. 2005. Improving Students Pronunciation through Accent Reduction Software.
British Journal of Educational Technology, 36(2), 303-316.
Tauroza, S., & Luk, J. 2016. Accent and Second Language Listening Comprehension. RELC
Journal, 28(1), 54-71. doi:10.1177/003368829702800104
Thomson, R. I., & Derwing, T. M. 2014. The Effectiveness of L2 Pronunciation Instruction:
A Narrative Review. Applied Linguistics, 36(3), 326-344. doi:10.1093/applin/amu076