Intonation and fluidity are key to making yourself understood in a second language, research shows
If French is your second language and you’re struggling to be understood, here’s some good news: a heavy accent is surmountable and mutable, even in adult learners.
“We found that the pronunciation of specific sounds, like vowels and consonants, is not the only important thing for listeners,” says Sara Kennedy, associate professor of applied linguistics in Concordia’s Department of Education.
Intonation and smoothness of speech, for example, are important ways to overcome a significant accent. A learner who pronounces specific sounds in an accented manner could still improve their overall “comprehensibility” if they modify other aspects of their speech.
“Our research suggests that adult learners of French can improve not just by focusing on the pronunciation of specific sounds — like the last vowel in tortue — but by learning to put words and phrases together in a more fluid and appropriate way,” says Kennedy. She recently published her findings with co-authors Pavel Trofimovich, applied linguistics professor at Concordia, and Josée Blanchet from the Université du Québec à Montrèal.
Methods and measures
In a previous study, the researchers employed listeners trained in linguistic coding to analyze audio recordings of 30 adult learners before and after a 15-week French course targeting phonetic instruction.
Linguistic coders are people trained to identify particular errors in a recording — such as the substitution of one sound for another — and to measure particular characteristics of speech, such as the frequency of hesitations.
The students improved, according to the listeners’ trained ears. What about untrained ears?
“In the new study we revisited the same recordings and data from the original study, but this time we asked 20 ‘naïve listeners’ — native speakers unfamiliar with linguistics coding — to rate the students’ accents, comprehensibility and fluency,” says Kennedy.
On a scale of one to 10, naïve listeners rated several aspects of a student’s speech, such as liaison, prosody (intonation) and segmental errors.
Naïve listeners found intonation to be an important factor when considering a student’s accentedness, while intonation and fluidity impacted learners’ comprehensibility. Hesitation was the biggest determinant for fluency.
Pronunciation, therefore, wasn’t the only important factor for these listeners.
“Our new results are noteworthy because they imply that focused phonetics instruction has an impact beyond coded measures of speech. It impacts the impressionistic judgements of listeners who are likely to interact with the students in real-world contexts,” says Kennedy.
Recommendations for French teachers
Kennedy notes that the results also provide important clues for the classroom.
Despite the difficulty second-language pronunciation poses for adult learners, it’s a skill that can be learned in the classroom context, especially when the curriculum emphasizes prosody (intonation), fluidity, expressiveness and connected speech processes such as liaison and enchaînement.
“It's very possible to have a noticeable non-native accent in French and still be easily understood,” she says. “Your comprehensibility is not fixed or assigned by one determinant.”
Read the published article, "Development of Second Language French Oral Skills in an Instructed Setting: A Focus on Speech Ratings".
Sign up for a French conversation course at Concordia Continuing Education (CCE).