By Ada Leivada
Did you know that according to recent language research it seems that it takes only a few seconds for people to decide how they feel about someone based on the way they speak? Linguists claim that simply hearing a short sentence can shape our opinion on a speaker, including if we like them or not and if we find them smart or funny.
This is also true about the non-native accents we hear in a speaker who speaks a language they learned later in life.
Have you ever found yourself in an international environment? A dinner party welcoming international students at college or welcoming visitors from a different country to the company where you work? If you have, you will have noticed that people from different countries pronounce certain sounds in a second language differently.
Let’s say that second language is English. For example, I’m sure you noticed the way French people pronounce the “th” sound in the word “that,” as well as the fact that Spanish people have no problem saying “that” but pronounce the “d” sound in “dentist” quite differently from how it sounds when spoken by a native English speaker.
Linguistic research by Job Schepens as part of his Fulbright fellowship at the University of Rochester suggests that the effects of your mother tongue on your accent in a second language can remain strong and can instantly lead a native speaker of that language to draw assumptions about you based on the way you speak.
Of course other factors are of extreme importance in how well you pronounce words in a second language, such as how old you were when you began learning it or your level of education.
Usually, however, the younger you are when you begin learning that second language, the better. Also, perhaps surprisingly, gender seems to play an important role since the research showed women scored higher in second language proficiency than did men.
However, the learner’s first language appears to be the most important factor of all, since it accounted for fully 50 percent of learners’ proficiency.
How similar the learner’s first language is to the language they are trying to learn appears to be — not surprisingly — what defines the strength of the effect of a learner’s first language on a second language.
To be more specific, German speakers tested in Dutch proficiency scored higher than Arabic speakers tested in Dutch because German is a great deal more similar to Dutch than Arabic.
If English speakers were tested in their proficiency in speaking Greek as a second language, they would most likely have lower results than, say, Spanish speakers because Greek is much more similar to Spanish than it is to English.
This means that regardless of how proficient you are in a language you learned a bit later in life, the language you grew up speaking will still affect your perceived non-nativeness.
Discussing this with Stella Bompotsiari, the founder and director of studies for Greek Lessons OnLine, I learn that this is an amazing insight concerning how languages should be taught. She underscores this concept, saying “since your native tongue has a major effect on the difficulties you face trying to learn a second language, if teaching takes into account the learner’s first language and its specific qualities, the results will be much better.”
The then adds “this research proved once again something that linguists and teachers are always talking about — the sooner you start learning a second language, the better.”
I ask Bompotsiari if this beneficial early start also applies to children who are brought up in families who speak Greek at home. “If the result we are looking for is true native proficiency in Greek, then yes,” she notes.
She explains that this is the case because these children probably go to an American school, if they live in the US, so they speak and hear English all the time except for when they are at home. As they are growing up, if their only exposure to Greek is at home, Greek will gradually shift to their second language even if it was their mother tongue initially.
“This is why we always tell parents that the sooner children start being exposed to Greek in an organized way that will become part of their weekly routine, the better,” Bompotsari stresses.
The language expert also added that children of expats need to be exposed to authentic Greek spoken by native Greeks. “This is why, at Greek LOL, we only work with teachers who are native speakers of Greek and who live and work in Greece,” she notes.
Bompotsari concludes, “that’s why we advise all of our students — both children and adults — to give a chance to our Greek Language Summer Camp and our Immersion Course for adults, which are especially designed to give them this intense exposure to authentic Greek spoken by native speakers.”
Learning any foreign language is a challenging endeavor — even when it is your parents’ native language.
However, if you are lucky enough to find professionals who truly know what they are doing, are always up to date with new scientific research and tools to facilitate language learning — and who don’t forget the need to have fun while doing it — then all you need on your part is a bit of patience.
Or perhaps a summertime trip to Greek language school in Greece!