Learning a foreign language is difficult and it can be made even more difficult because of the different accents that native speakers may have.

For example, I am a New Zealander and my accent when I speak English is very different to someone from Ireland or Scotland. Even for me, as a native English speaker, I can have trouble understanding someone who is speaking in an Irish or Scottish accent.

Complete the reading below and complete the sentences with NO MORE than TWO WORDS from the reading.

  1. Native speakers' accents are due to their geographical location and their connections to different _________.

  2. We are all capable of producing the full range of ________ necessary for all human languages.

  3. As we grow, we learn to distinguish sounds which are important to our native language and disregard those that ________.

  4. Consonant clusters In English can be difficult for Myanmar speakers to pronounce because they contain no ________

  5. Second language learners can experience difficulties with sounds that aren't present in their ___________.

What is an accent?

Broadly stated, your accent is the way you sound when you speak. There are two different kinds of accents. One is a 'foreign' accent; this occurs when a person speaks one language using some of the rules or sounds of another one. For example, if a person has trouble pronouncing some of the sounds of a second language they're learning, they may substitute similar sounds that occur in their first language. This sounds wrong, or 'foreign', to native speakers of the language.

The other kind of accent is simply the way a group of people speak their native language. This is determined by where they live and what social groups they belong to. People who live in close contact grow to share a way of speaking, or accent, which will differ from the way other groups in other places speak.

Why do foreign speakers have trouble pronouncing certain sounds?

People have trouble with sounds that don't exist in the language (or languages) that they first learned as a young child. We are born capable of both producing and perceiving all of the sounds of all human languages. In infancy, a child begins to learn what sounds are important in his or her language, and to disregard the rest. By the time you're a year old, you've learned to ignore most distinctions among sounds that don't matter in your own language. The older you get, the harder it becomes to learn the sounds that are part of a different language.

It's not only individual sounds that can cause a person's speech to sound foreign. Sound patterns also differ from language to language. For instance, an English syllable may begin or end with a cluster of consonants, as with the str and ngths of the word strengths. In Myanmar, on the other hand, a syllable contains only one consonant followed by one vowel - as in ka or ki. For this reason, pronouncing English consonant clusters is hard for Myanmar speakers, and they may produce a vowel sound between the consonants in a cluster (e.g. spirit, film)

Are some sounds harder to pronounce than others?

It depends on whether we're talking about first- or second-language learning. Native speakers of a language do tend to master some of its sounds before others. In English,p, m, n, h, and w are among the first consonants acquired by children, while z, j, v,and the two th sounds (as in think and this) are among the last to be mastered. But all of the sounds of a language are generally acquired before puberty by a native speaker. Typically, it's only non-native learners that have long-term difficulty with a sound. When you learn a second language, you may have difficulty with sounds that don't occur in your native language.

Which languages are the hardest to learn?

Again, it depends on whether we're talking about a first or second language. Children acquire their native language effortlessly, regardless of the language. Learning another language later on, however, is a different matter. Some languages do have far more complicated word-building rules than others, and others have far more complex sound patterns or sentence structures. But despite differences in individual areas of a language, researchers have not found any one language or group of languages to be clearly more difficult or complicated in all areas.

In short, no one language or group of languages can be said to be harder than the rest. All languages are easy for infants to learn; it's only those of us who grew up speaking something else that find them difficult.

by Betty Birner (Linguistic Society of America)

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