Can Asians speak English without an accent

Many working people still have to learn a new foreign language when they are over 40


Read on one side

"Those who start late with a language can still become extremely good. But they will always speak with an accent and make some mistakes," says Robert DeKeyser. The linguist from the University of Maryland belongs to the biology faction. "Of course, some late learners speak so well that even native speakers think they're their own," he admits. That is the classic objection of the environmental supporters: If some people manage it so perfectly, there can be no biological limit! DeKeyser brushes the argument off the table with one sentence: "With tests in the laboratory, we can always convict these people." Here a suspiciously short vowel, there a slight hesitation in a phrase - and one thing is clear: not a native speaker.


Intensive language course

Joachim Zimmer 47, mechanical engineer

"I will soon go to China for Bosch and head a work group there that develops electrical control drives for cars. When my boss offered me the job, he advised me to take an intensive language course beforehand. Changsha, where I will work, is pretty much in South, only a few people speak English there, except in the company. My boss recommended the regional language institute in Bochum to me, and Bosch often sends employees there. I knew it would be exhausting, but on the second day I honestly thought: ' How am I going to hold out for three weeks? ' The most difficult thing for me is to learn pronunciation and content at the same time. In Chinese, accentuation is very important; I slouched a bit at the beginning, and that was immediately noticeable. I thought it was good that we trained for daily survival, So shopping, hotel and so on. Now I practice speaking with a CD in the car in the morning. I want to be able to say a few words, especially at business lunches, to do a little bit of small talk. "

Anyone who studies in the language school two evenings a week would be happy to even reach such a level. For scientists like DeKeyser, however, the small differences indicate that the ability to learn languages ​​decreases significantly with age.

But when exactly it is too late to become as good as a native speaker, the researchers disagree. "It also depends on what aspect of the language you are looking at," says DeKeyser. "First of all, children lose the ability to imitate pronunciation exactly, that is, to speak without an accent." Some scientists set the critical limit at six years, some even earlier. The rules of grammar, on the other hand, could be perfectly internalized by children up to puberty.

The ability to save new words is retained the longest. Even adults can still learn vocabulary without any major problems. It is simply additional data; new expressions are constantly being added in the mother tongue. But the researchers found differences even in this field: late learners are often not aware of all the dimensions of a term and the subtle differences in the meanings of related expressions.

The Chinese students in Bochum struggle the most with pronunciation. Ms. Sun, the teacher, is practicing with them again this morning very intensively, without grammar, without new words. " Where" it says on her exercise sheet, "I" it means. "Uo," says engineer Zimmer. Ms. Sun says, "Uooa." Then " xue ", learn. Max Westerheide says "ssü". "Chssüüe," says Ms. Sun. "With the› ü ‹very small mouth, pointed mouth!" She shouts. "Like kissing!" Westerheide looks spellbound at Mrs. Sun's kissable mouth, pulls out her lips herself, tries again: "Chsüe". Joachim Zimmer, too, stares at the teacher with high concentration, not looking sideways at Westerheide. The two of them have just as much trouble with the pronunciation - 47 or 17 years old, apparently that makes no difference.

Indeed, from the age of one, children lose a crucial ability to learn foreign languages ​​completely without an accent. At first you can still perceive each of the over 100 speech sounds in this world, but then you concentrate on the sounds that are spoken around you, everything else you no longer perceive. Later on, it doesn't matter how exactly a language teacher speaks the words and how patiently he corrects them; older learners can no longer imitate them down to the last detail - because they don't even hear some differences in the first place.

Even theory doesn't help, says Wolfgang Klein, Director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics. The Germanist has been researching how to learn a second language in Nijmegen for 30 years. "One of my employees from China, of all people, a phonologist, has been struggling for a long time to tell the r and l apart, like many Asians," says Klein. In their mother tongue, the difference just doesn't matter. "She literally learned by heart where there is an r and an l," says the researcher. "But when you speak, you still slip out the wrong sound every now and then."