Forum – April 26, 2019

Margarethe McDonald

Accented vs native exposure in Korean children’s English abilities

The Korean government invests an estimated $15 billion annually on English education and testing (Park, 2009). The importance of English education is noticeable in the early age that children start learning English. Although English education in schools is not mandatory until 3rd grade, many private academies and English preschools offer English education much earlier. Despite such a push for early language acquisition, adults in Korea self-report low English speaking abilities, especially as compared to adults in other countries in Asia (Jeon, 2006). This is likely due to the focus of teaching English with the goal of test-taking for the national college entrance exam which does not incorporate an oral component. Therefore, despite years of English education, English pronunciation in adults growing up in Korea tends to be highly accented. In typical language classrooms around the world pronunciation is often undertaught as compared to other aspects of language such as grammar and vocabulary. In classrooms without a focus on oral language skills, pronunciation practice is even more neglected.

Language research shows the language exposure is a fundamental necessity for native-like pronunciation. The earlier the exposure begins, the more native-like the language pronunciation is likely to become (Flege, Yeni-Komshian, & Liu, 1999). Further, language exposure can change phonological perception in both adults and children such that after as little as one minute of exposure to accented speech, comprehension of the speech improves (Clarke & Garett 2004).

Within schools and private academies, both native Korean teachers and native English teachers often teach English in a mixed classroom format. This means children have exposure to both Korean-accented English and native English speakers. The direct effects of such exposure on the language outcomes of children is not well known. This project examined how short-term exposure to both native and accented English affects the English perception and production abilities of Korean children aged 6-9 years old. Sixty-eight children with a wide range of English abilities participated in the experiment. Children performed an experimental task which included English exposure to words which included difficult contrasts for Korean speakers (e.g. /p/-/f/ or /l/-/r/) followed by the children pronouncing words which contained the contrasts and perceiving minimal pairs which included the contrasts. They performed this task in two conditions-one where the language exposure was by a native English speaker, and one where the exposure was by a Korean-accented English speaker. Children also performed Korean and English language testing to establish baseline proficiency.

The results of the production experiment will be presented in addition to initial results from the perception experiment. Child language abilities and daily accent exposure will also be examined in the context of the results. Results will be discussed both in the context of English language education in Korea as well as more broadly to other bilingual language classrooms.

Margarethe McDonald is a PhD candidate in Communication Science & Disorders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on bilingual language acquisition in children and adults, with a focus on phonetic and phonological systems. Margarethe has a B.A. in Linguistics and East Asian Languages & Cultures from Indiana University. She is currently a Fulbright Junior Researcher working in Dr. Eon-Suk Ko’s Child Language Lab at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea.