Tuesday, 14 May 2013

rant alert

I'm sorry but I must get this off my chest.
I've started reading a scholarly book on the phenomenon called foreign accent. In the book's first chapter the author, a renowned professor at an American university, mentions the often repeated idea that children normally master their mother tongue, whereas if adults start learning an additional language they do not reach the same high level. To which the author adds the remark that this widely believed fact has been challenged. Included in round brackets is a reference to Spada 2011. Not knowing this source I consulted the reference section and found this:

Nina Spada
credit: University of Toronto
Spada, N. (2011). SLA research and L2 pedagogy. Misapplications and questions of relevance. Presentation to Second Language Research Forum, Iowa State University, Ames, IA.

Not very helpful - not helpful at all - and a nuisance!
Don't we write books for the academic readership? Don't we write them so that our colleagues are enabled to evaluate our statements, hypotheses, theories? Don't we all rely more or less on written sources when we give credit to what some other person thinks about the topic? Don't we all check the odd reference to an article in a journal or to a monograph? Yes, we do! How can we countercheck what Professor Nina Spada opined on that conference if we did not attend that forum or conference or whatever it was?


  1. Thanks for pointing it out to me. But still ... I dislike references to unpublished conference talks and unstable sources, e.g. links to online sources.

  2. I sympathise with you, Petr, but for a different reason, especially now your original difficulty has been solved (the online ref. is to the conference proceedings in a journal issue, Language Teaching, that you might find in your university library, or better still download at once if your university has negotiated access for you).

    The topic quoted refers to language acquisition, not just accent, and is usually attributed to Lenneberg 1967 (Biological Foundations of Language), and beyond him Chomsky and Jacobson. To have it finally challenged after 40 years is remarkable, but in an unpublished plenary lecture would be odd. So use your professorial rights to get your free copy and see what this epoch breaking research or argument is.

  3. The claim was challenged earlier, of course, e.g. by Scovel in 1988. There's an excellent study by Theo Bongaerts et al. (1997): "Age and ultimate attainment in the pronunciation of a foreign language", Studies in Second Language Acquisition 19: 447-465, which suggests that it is possible for late starters to acquire a native-like pronunciation.