Why can't Modi improve his English pronunciation?

Accent-free in a foreign language: psyche plays along

Learning a foreign language is a process. Some people manage to adapt to a new world of vocabulary and sound faster than others, others find it difficult. Scientists at the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich are looking for the causes of these inequalities. You have taken the "th" as an example, many Germans have a hard time pronouncing it.

The "th" mistake Germans make when learning English is typical. The phrase "Senk ju vor träwelling" has become a classic, many people laugh about it, even if they make the mistake themselves. The paradox: Although they generally just hear the German accent in other people, language students often cannot correct mistakes in themselves despite years of practice.

Hear yourself

LMU linguists Eva Reinisch and Nikola Eger, together with Holger Mitterer from the University of Malta, have now found a reason for this accent paradox: "Many people overestimate their own level of pronunciation," says Reinisch. "They generally think their English is better than that of other language students, even though they make the same mistakes."

This overconfidence is an important reason that makes it so difficult to learn a foreign language without an accent. As part of the study, a total of 24 test subjects first read out 60 simple sentences such as "The family bought a house", "The jug is on the shelf" or "They heard a funny noise". A few weeks later, the participants heard individual recorded sentences from a total of four speakers, from themselves and three others. After each sentence you should rate the pronunciation in the form of a school grade.

Setting for study

In order to prevent one's own sentences from being recognized, all recordings were alienated, in this specific case converted into typically male voices. "That is crucial, the test subjects should not be aware that they are hearing their own voices, otherwise we would not be able to take their evaluations seriously," says Holger Mitterer. The result was clear: in all cases, the test subjects rated themselves with the best pronunciation, even though they no longer recognized their "own" voice. "We were surprised that we could show this overconfidence so clearly," says Reinisch.

There are several explanations for the effect. For one, the researchers know from previous studies that accents that are well known are easier to understand. "We know our own voice well and therefore find it easy to understand," says Reinisch, who conducts research at the Institute for Phonetics and Speech Processing. "That's why we may find our own accent easy to understand and therefore better than it is." Another possible explanation is the so-called "mere exposure" effect. This effect describes that we consider things that we know to be more pleasant. Our own pronunciation is, of course, something we know well.

Make mistakes aware

The findings show how important external feedback is when learning a foreign language, as it deliberately makes people aware of mistakes. "We cannot improve as long as we think that we are actually quite good," emphasizes Reinisch. Otherwise there is a risk of an effect that the researchers call "fossilization". One believes that one has already achieved the goal in the pronunciation, although objectively this is not the case, and therefore sees no more reason to continue practicing. The LMU linguists are thinking about how to improve pronunciation in the future with the help of apps that generate external feedback. (red, 02/10/2020)