Thursday, May 13, 2010

Get a native-speaker tutor that speaks in the accent you want to learn

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post writes:
According to a new research study in Israel, students learn a second language better from a teacher who speaks with the same accent as they do.
Why I think Valerie's on the wrong track, after the jump. First, let's look at the research in more detail:
Sixty participants age 18 to 26 were chosen. Twenty were native Hebrew speakers, 20 were from the former Soviet Union and 20 were Israeli Arabs who had started learning Hebrew at about 7.

Researchers recorded Hebrew phrases, saying the last word using one of four accents: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian or English. The students were then tested to see how long it took them to recognize the Hebrew word.

… [T]hey found that the Hebrew speakers could decipher Hebrew words adequately regardless of the accent, but the Russian and Arabic speakers needed more time to understand the words presented in an accent foreign to theirs. …

"If you are an Arab, you would understand English better if taught by a native Arab English teacher," Eviatar[, one of the study's authors,] said.
That big conclusion seems a bit out of line with the data. I'll leave the statistically insignificant data set aside, but all this says is that it's easier to understand words in a foreign language when spoken in your native accent, and that's hardly a surprise.

But the implication that this means less native-speaker exposure is the way to go is exactly the opposite of what I would take from this study. Precisely because these accented speakers have trouble recognizing the native accent, I'd prescribe more native-speaker exposure. After all, the goal here is to be able to converse with native speakers, not accented speakers of the target language whose native tongue happens to be the same as yours. And the more exposure you get to native speakers, the easier it will become to understand them.


  1. I agree. It's harder, but it gets you to the goal faster. And the goal is always to be able to speak with natives and have them understand you, and you understand them.

  2. You should listen to bother native and your own accent. Hardly anything is ever black and white.