People who learn a foreign language often struggle with the correct pronunciation. The "th" mistake of the Germans when learning English is typical here. "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 simply hear the German accent in other people, language students can often not correct mistakes in themselves despite years of practice. The LMU linguists Eva Reinischand 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 usually find their English better than that of other language students, even though they make the same mistakes." This overconfidence is an important reason that makes it difficult to learn a foreign language without an accent.
As part of the study, a total of 24 subjects read 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. In order to prevent the own sentences from being recognized, all recordings were distorted, in the specific case converted into typically male voices. "This is crucial, the test subjects should not be aware that they also hear their own voices, otherwise we could not 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 were able to show this self-overestimation so clearly," says Reinisch.
There are several explanations for the effect. For one thing, 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 does research at the Institute for Phonetics and Language 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 we know to be more pleasant. Of course, your own pronunciation is something we know well.
The findings show how important external feedback is when learning foreign languages because it deliberately makes mistakes aware. "We cannot improve as long as we think that we are actually quite good," emphasizes Reinisch. Otherwise there is the risk of an effect that the researchers call "fossilization". You think that you have already achieved the goal in the debate, even though that is not objectively the case, and therefore see no reason to continue practicing. LMU linguists are thinking about how to improve pronunciation in the future with the help of apps that generate external feedback.
Mitterer et al. (2020) My English sounds better than yours: Second-language learners perceive their own accent as better than that of their peers. Scientific Reports. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0227643
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