I get all kinds of things popping up on my feed on a popular social media site. This one recently came up.
Are you struggling with your accent in [language]? Or do you have a difficult time understanding native speakers? This course is for you! We’ll start from the building blocks—individual syllables, tone exercises, etc.—and then move on to multi-syllable words, sentences and even paragraphs. Along the way, we’ll give you the tools you need to develop and maintain a good accent and listening ability in [language]. And if you already have bad pronunciation habits, we’ll show you how to fix those too!
I mean, wow. Just, wow. I’m surprised the course doesn’t promise that my house will be cleaner, my dog better-behaved, and my calendar full of high-paying gigs, too.
People struggle with improving their accent in their target languages. That’s fair enough. And working on syllables and getting “the tools you need to develop…a good accent” (whatever those are, specifically) will probably have some positive effect on improving accent on output.
But the promise that offends me is that doing this micro-phonetic repeat-after-me will improve your listening comprehension. Really?
There are many languages where native speakers are famous for various degrees of non-standard pronunciation. As an interpreter, I can definitely agree that the struggle is real. Every time I turn on my microphone, I’m afraid that I might not be able to understand the speaker because of just that.
But you know — I have a pretty good accent in Chinese myself. I’m trained in phonetics. I can diagram for you where the interference from the native accent of Village Y in Province X comes from in linguistic terms. I probably have many more hours of hard linguistics training and accent work than anyone taking this wonder course is going to get. Yet I still have these problems.
Knowing what’s going on in a local accent is good. I can remember that lots of rural Taiwanese substitute F for H. I know that fact. But — and this will sound very familiar to people who teach using Comprehended Input and who understand the difference between learning and acquisition — that knowledge doesn’t do me much good in a fast-paced situation like trying to understand the speech of someone who has a heavy accent. Yeah, I know what’s happening, and often a half-hour later, I’ll hit myself in the head and say, “Erm, yeah, of course, he was saying that word. D’oh!” But there wasn’t time during the input (!) to apply the rule “when you hear an /f/ sound, ask yourself whether it’s in a place where you would expect an /h/ sound in standard Mandarin”. That’s great if you’re listening to a recording and have all the time in the world, but not in real life.
So what does help with listening comprehension?
Acquired vocabulary and acquired syntax (grammar). Because “acquired” means “can be used immediately with no delay in decoding”. And because “acquired” gives a native-like command of that part of the language, which includes the ability to ‘hear’ what ‘should’ come next, or to reject what could not come next.
When we do Cold Character Reading with beginners in Mandarin, I am still amazed at how they can (and do) self-correct while reading out loud. I’ve never seen that in students who learned to read traditionally. And I suspect that there are two reasons for this. First, traditionally-taught kids just don’t have the opportunity to read much — but more importantly, they don’t have the Chinese Voice. The Voice is acquired language. It may not be a very broad voice, in the case of beginners, but it’s a solid voice (if we’re doing our job well as providers of comprehended input). It is this ability to hear what could go next that allows the brain to correct a wrong reading and still not lose the thread of meaning of the whole sentence. Traditionally (non-CI) taught beginners simply cannot do that.
So take the accent class if you like. Repeat the syllables, identify the tones, knock yourself out. You’ll sound better, maybe. But don’t expect that to magically transport your listening ability to the next level.