12.02.2020

Why we overestimate our ability with foreign languages

An international research team with the participation of the Austrian Academy of Sciences has examined whether we rate our own accent better than that of others and provided evidence as to why this is so.

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It's true: when German speakers speak English, we always hear the other's accent very clearly. An extreme example is Arnold Schwarzenegger: "He speaks six languages, but all with a Styrian accent", said a newspaper about one of his roles. But how good is our own pronunciation when learning a foreign language? Is it true that we notice the accent much less with ourselves?

This is exactly what scientists from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), the Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) of Munich and the University of Malta investigated. They tested whether German-speakers learning English rated their own accent better than that of others. The results have now been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Acoustically modified sentences

For the study, researchers recorded 24 female students as they read English sentences. These were simple sentences in terms of their structure and content, such as "The family bought a house", "The jug is on the shelf" or "They heard a funny noise". Then the voices were modified and converted from female to male voices. "Due to the morphing, all acoustic features of the accent were preserved, but the voices were no longer recognizable as their own", explains Eva Reinisch from the Acoustics Research Institute at the OeAW and the LMU.

After a few weeks, the subjects came back to the laboratory and were asked to rate the pronunciation of the supposed men. Each listened to four modified voices, including their own. "We only examined women so that the morphing of the voice was always similar. But there is no reason to believe that our results would have been different with men", the phonetician says.

Significantly better rating

The results of the study show that the subjects rated the pronunciation of their own, but morphed, voices better than they were rated by others, even though they did not recognize their own voice. How can this be explained? Reinisch: "We know from previous studies that accents you know well are easier to understand. Another possible explanation is the mere-exposure effect, i.e., the psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things they know well." If anything is familiar to us, it is of course our own accent.

What do these results mean for the future of language learning? Eva Reinisch recommends that you expose yourself to more criticism: "As long as we think that we are actually quite good, we cannot improve. We therefore need external feedback that makes us aware of our mistakes."

A little consolation: you don’t need to sound like a native English speaker, the phonetician concedes. "In German we don’t have a problem when we can recognize that someone is from Vienna or Berlin. Then why should you sound in English as if you were from London?" In a possible follow-up project, the research team would like to investigate how pronunciation could be improved, for example with apps that generate external feedback.

 

FUNDING

The study was supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

PUBLICATION

Mitterer, H., Eger, N. A., Reinisch, E. (2020). My English sounds better than your: Second-language learners perceive their own accent as better than that of their peers.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0227643