How many of us remember being tortured in high school Spanish class by our inability to say “Costa Rica” with that long, trilling Spanish R? Or maybe we felt like complete failures in French class because we couldn’t seem to pronounce anything with a convincing French accent? Achieving native pronunciation in a language is the focus of many language courses and the inability to modify our mouths to perfectly pronounce every vowel and consonant in a foreign language is often equated to an inability to speak the language. The good news for those who feel like their mouths were just not made to make extremely foreign sounds is that research has shown that an excessive focus on the pronunciation of individual language elements actually leads to reduced fluency with respect to teaching approaches which keep in mind a more global picture of the language’s sounds.
Canadian linguistics professors Tracey Derwing (University of Alberta) and Murray Munro (Simon Fraser University) have carried out significant research on how accent interferes with intelligibility in second language learning. In a 1998 study, they divided students learning English as a second language into three groups with different teaching approaches: instruction with no focus on pronunciation, instruction with a focus on the pronunciation of individual language segments, and general speaking instruction including prosodic factors (“Prosody” is how linguists define the use of pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm in speech to convey meaning). The students receiving some kind of pronunciation instruction (the second and third groups) showed improvement in comprehensibility and “accentedness,” but only the group receiving the more general instruction (the third group) showed significant improvement in “fluency.” The elusive “fluency” which language learners seek might be something other than an immaculate pronunciation!
Upon further reflection, it should come as no surprise that comprehensibility and fluency in a language should be independent of the ability to correctly pronounce every single vowel and consonant sound. Children missing their front teeth are unable to make the “th” sound in English and yet we understand them perfectly. Many Americans pronounce “pin” and “pen” in exactly the same way, say “milk” as if it were “melk” and call “Bill” “bell” but are comprehensible nonetheless. A great number of Italians are physically unable to make the trilling “r” (similar to the Spanish “r”) and a smaller number cannot make the “gl” sound (like the “lli” in “million”) which is so common in the language, and yet these people are fully-fledged fluent speakers of their native language, often becoming politicians, actors, and other types of personalities who speak publicly for a living.
Furthermore, the American entertainment scene offers us a rich panorama of public personalities with foreign accents who are not inhibited in their work by the peculiarity of their speech. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, and Heidi Klum are all wildly successful communicators despite their accented speech. Out of sight of the public eye, instruction at America’s best universities, especially in science and engineering departments, is often carried out by professors speaking with strong Russian, Chinese, and Arabic accents, among others.
All of this should cause us to reflect on our goals when we are learning a foreign language. Do we want to learn to speak precisely like a native speaker or do we want to learn to communicate with the greatest fluency possible? Pronunciation is important, but it is restrictive to focus only on the pronunciation of certain vowel and consonant sounds ignoring broader scale patterns such as intonation, volume, and meter. At the end of the day, it is possible to learn to speak communicative, fluent Spanish without ever properly trilling an “R.”