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The Project

When your native language sounds foreign


Most individuals learning a second language (L2) in adulthood will speak it with a foreign accent containing traces of the speakers’ first language (L1). Recent research has shown, however, that the reverse is also possible, i.e. that learning an L2 can affect pronunciation in the L1, even to the extent that individuals sound foreign in their native language. This is commonly referred to as L1 phonetic attrition. This project aimed to uncover the nature of foreign accent in L1 attrition in the pronunciation of English expatriates in Austria for perceived differences from the native L1 norm.

To this end, we identified how often listeners perceived the participants in our study as non-native and which pronunciation features created this impression. Just under half (47%) of the expatriates were perceived as not sounding native in their L1: 42% were perceived as mildly accented and 5% as heavily accented. It shows that it is not uncommon for individuals to have a mild foreign accent in their L1. Listeners associated non-native speech most commonly with speech rate, intonation, and vowels, whereas consonants were mentioned considerably less often. This shows that some accentual features are more likely to be perceived as non-native than others.

Secondly, the project examined how those aspects that were most commonly perceived as non-native in the L1 were produced by the participants. Results showed that their speech productions differed from those of native English speakers living in England. A comparison of the participants’ data to the German pronunciation patterns of native German speakers from Austria, showed that the observed changes to L1 pronunciation are caused by interactions with the respective features in the L2. Thus, listeners base their judgements of non-nativelikeness on influences from L2 pronunciation that are present in the participants’ L1 speech.

Finally, the project aimed to establish why some individuals are perceived as non-native while others in similar circumstances are not. We found that individuals who have stayed longer in the L2 environment tend to be perceived as less native, but other factors (e.g. how often the L1 and L2 are used, how old they are when they start learning the L2, or whether speakers who are very proficient in the L2 are more prone to L1 attrition) could not explain individual differences in perceived non-nativelikeness. We found, for instance, that good pronunciation in the L2 does not necessarily lead to perceptible changes in L1 pronunciation, as some speakers had a very weak accent in their L2 but were nevertheless perceived as strongly accented in their L1.

Overall, the findings have increased our understanding of L1 phonetic attrition by showing which aspects of pronunciation can be ‘unlearned’ and how this affects perceived nativeness.

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