When we hear others speaking a foreign language, we immediately notice an accent. For instance, a newspaper once quipped about Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of a secret agent: “He speaks six languages fluently, but all with an Austrian accent”.
So, why do we notice the accent in others so easily, but are unable to adjust our own accent when speaking a foreign language?
In a recent publication in PlosOne, Holger Mitterer, Nikola Anna Eger and Eva Reinisch suggest an explanation. We perceive our own accent as better than it really is. This international team from the Universities of Malta and Munich, and the Austrian Academy of Sciences recorded German female learners of English and subsequently altered these recordings to make them sound like coming from male voices.
A few weeks later, the same learners came back to the lab to judge the foreign accent of these altered voices. Results showed that learners rated their own voice as better than the others, even though they were unaware that they were rating their own voice.
This shows that we find it difficult to hear our own foreign accent when speaking in a foreign language and, as a consequence, are unable to improve on that front.
Mitterer, H., Eger, N. A., & Reinisch, E. (2020). My English sounds better than yours: Second-language learners perceive their own accent as better than that of their peers. PlosOne. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0227643
Abstract of the paper:
Second language (L2) learners are often aware of the typical pronunciation errors that speakers of their native language make, yet often persist in making these errors themselves. We hypothesised that L2 learners may perceive their own accent as closer to the target language than the accent of other learners, due to frequent exposure to their own productions. This was tested by recording 24 female native speakers of German producing 60 sentences. The same participants later rated these recordings for accentedness.
Importantly, the recordings had been altered to sound male so that participants were unaware of their own productions in the to-be-rated samples. We found evidence supporting our hypothesis: participants rated their own altered voice, which they did not recognize as their own, as being closer to a native speaker than that of other learners. This finding suggests that objective feedback may be crucial in fostering L2 acquisition and reduce fossilisation of erroneous patterns.