As anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language will tell you, pronunciation is one of its most challenging obstacles. This article, called “Linguistics: The pronunciation paradox,” posits that although people learning new languages recognizes the mistakes they make in others, they continue to make the same mistakes themselves. The article goes on to quote a linguist from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet, Eva Reinisch, who says, “Learners have a tendency to overestimate the quality of their own pronunciation.” This quote really stood out to me. As a learner of French, I hear several mispronunciations of French words, both from myself and from my classmates. I’ve always thought that my pronunciation was, at the very least, decent. I now realize that could be much worse that I expect it to be, although I’m not sure how I’ll get rid of my seeming egoistic bias towards my own pronunciation. “Why do you say that?”, you may ask, knowing that getting rid of biases often simply involves realizing that you even have biases to begin with. Well, that has a lot to do with the experiment they conducted. To summarize the experiment, Germans English learners were made to read out several sentences. Then, weeks later, the same people were asked grade people’s pronunciation, but the speaker’s voice was altered to make it sound as if it belonged to the opposite sex. The study essentially showed that people graded their own pronunciation as better even when they had no knowledge of whose pronunciation they graded. The article then goes on to suggest several explanations for the study’s findings. The first is that people find familiar accents easier to understand, and that people find their own voices very easy to understand. Personally, I find this to be a pretty satisfactory explanation. Although many of us do not like the sound of our voices, I can say with confidence that no one’s pronunciation displeases them too much. Combine that with the fact that we feel familiar with our own accents, and it makes a lot of sense that people graded their own pronunciation as better than that of others. Then again, that takes us in a circle, as the whole study seeks to prove that people overrate themselves. Does this mean that I’ll try harder in French class? Maybe. But I fear I may be too full of myself to do so.
Hi, I'm Om, the author of Lingua Franca.