Michael Tyler

Why do we speak (and hear) with an accent when we learn a second language as an adult?
We all know that when you learn a second language as an adult you are almost guaranteed to speak that language with a detectable foreign accent. That's easy to observe because we can hear it! What is less obvious is that late second language learners also hear with an accent. That is, when you go to learn a second language you might not be able to hear the difference between certain sounds in that language. You might have heard that spoken accents happen because of “habit” or because the speakers can get their tongues around the sounds, but if you can’t hear the difference between two foreign sounds then why would you expect to be able to pronounce them?
In my research I am interested in finding out why we have difficulty telling the difference between some (but not all) sounds in foreign languages. My colleague Prof. Cathi Best and I have developed the Perceptual Assimilation Model for Second Language Learning (PAM-L2; Best & Tyler, 2007) that seeks to account for why perceptual accents occur. Basically, infants are born with the ability to learn any set of sounds of any of the world’s languages. The more infants tune in to the specific sounds of the surrounding language, the harder it becomes to learn to tell the difference between certain foreign sounds. This tuning in to your native language keeps on going all the way through childhood and we think that is why children who learn a second language are much less likely to hear (and speak) with an accent when they grow up. 
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. What you know about your native language can actually help when learning a second language. What is crucial, according to PAM-L2, is how you perceive the specific sounds of the second language relative to your native language. In the end what I want to be able to do is work out how people might be trained to perceive differences that they can’t hear to begin with.
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