Bilingual is Better
Feb
22
2010

Speak Like a Native

Posted by:  |  Category: Must Reads

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Photo by lululemon athletica

Photo by lululemon athletica

My husband was prepping for a presentation for one of the classes he takes at the local university when I happened to ask him how he felt about speaking in front of a group of people. He said it had gotten much easier with time, but that it would be even easier if he didn’t have to do it in English. That was surprising!

I’ve always considered him just as bilingual and biliterate as I am. Both of us attended bilingual schools in our home countries and finished our high school education in the US. We are able to communicate in both languages with the same ease — or so I thought. The thing is that I totally understand where he is coming from because I feel exactly the same way, but I never really stopped to think about it. In other words, although I hate giving speeches period, I can’t deny the dread would be diminished if I can do it in Spanish.

Why? I guess at the end of the day, Spanish is my native language and although I’ve gotten past it, I’ve always been conscious that I have a Spanish accent when I speak English and that there are many words I don’t pronounce correctly. In fact, I was corrected when I said the name of this, my very own blog, in front of a group of parents recently. The worst part is that, in some cases, the difference in pronunciation is so subtle, that I can’t really tell, but native English speakers can.

Coincidentally, just last week, all this came into play in two separate occasions. The first incident was during a phone conversation with someone at a government agency. We had been talking for at least ten minutes and I just needed one more piece of information before we were done. All of a sudden, she blatantly, albeit politely, told me she could detect an accent when I spoke and asked if I’d rather talk to someone in Spanish. I proceeded to decline her incredulous offer by explaining politely that I was bilingual.

The second incident took place at my neighborhood’s craft store while I was explaining the materials I was looking for to a employee at the framing department. I think she was frustrated because they really didn’t carry one of the products I was looking for and ended up asking me if I’d rather talk to someone in Spanish. I thanked her for the offer, but declined and went on to finish the rest of my shopping…mad. I can’t remember the last time something like this happened to me — certainly not in Miami, where speaking English with a Spanish accent is “normal”. My husband couldn’t understand why I was angry, but I guess it really bothered me that TWICE in one week, someone thought I didn’t know how to speak English because I have a Spanish accent when I speak it.

Anyhow, all this got me thinking about how it’ll be for my children when they get older. Will they have an English accent when they speak Spanish? Will they ever not feel comfortable giving a class presentation in Spanish? Can I prevent that from happening?

This brings up an interesting point about second language acquisition and timing. It should be common knowledge that the younger you learn a second (or third) language, the better chances you have of speaking like a native. So besides the fact that it’s easier for children to learn a second language the younger they are, one of the most important benefits is that they’ll actually learn to speak it with a native or near-native accent. A child’s ability to hear different phonetic pronunciation is most acute before the age of three. Countless studies, including this recent one, have shown that babies and toddlers are better able to tell the difference among a wider variety of languages than older children and adults.

In her book, Raising a Bilingual Child, our own bilingualism expert, Barbara Zurer Pearson, says that “infants are very good at hearing sound contrasts from birth and are also very good at learning to ignore then from shortly after six months, if they do not continue to hear them in their surroundings.” Eventually, children learn to only make the distinctions pertinent to the languages by which they are surrounded.

In my case, for example, since I learned my second language after the first one was already in place, I had already learned to ignore any sound contrasts that were not relevant to the Spanish spoken around me. In order to learn the sound differences in English I had to “forget” the ones I already knew in Spanish and almost start from scratch.

In my children’s case; however, it seems like the opposite will be true. They are basically exposed to both English and Spanish at the same time. I can already detect, for example, that my daughter will have native accents in both languages as she already makes a distinction even with such simple things as pronouncing her name.

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