LINGUIST List 25.5100

Mon Dec 15 2014

Review: Applied Ling; Phonology; Socioling: Moyer (2013)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 03-Jul-2014
From: Mary Hudgens Henderson <>
Subject: Foreign Accent
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Alene Moyer
TITLE: Foreign Accent
SUBTITLE: The Phenomenon of Non-native Speech
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Mary Hudgens Henderson, University of New Mexico

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This book discusses theoretical, legal, social and pedagogical issues surrounding concept of “accent” in second language learning. Researchers and students of Second Language Acquisition are the major audience, but the book is also relevant to readers interested in specific topics, such as the legal ramifications of having an “accent”, instructional issues for second language learners, and attitudinal issues towards sounding “foreign”.

Chapter 1, “The scope and relevance of accent”, introduces the concept of accent with a focus on adult second language users. The author distinguishes the terms “accent”, “dialect” and “pronunciation” which are often erroneously used interchangeably. She challenges the assumption that late language learners will never sound “native”, and sets up the critique of the Critical Period Hypothesis that appears later in the book. The idea of “ultimate attainment”, or the “end-state of learning”, is connected to both quantity and quality of second language experience, establishing one of the main positions of the book and current second language (L2) research (i.e., age is only one factor that contributes to one’s “nativeness” or “non-nativeness”, alongside linguistic experience and affect).

Chapter 2, “Accent and age”, tackles the age-related disparities in phonological acquisition by examining classic dichotomies such as age-of-onset versus length-of-residence, and early versus late learners. Evidence for and against the Critical Period Hypothesis is presented, with an emphasis on cerebral plasticity and the cognitive processes of categorical perception, transfer, and markedness. The implications of early childhood bilingualism for phonological awareness are discussed, with a focus on how age usually correlates with phonological attainment in the second language. The author highlights the “intriguing inconsistencies” (p. 46) that remain unresolved in the literature; for example, bidirectional influences of first and second language sounds are not yet understood. Moyer concludes this chapter by pointing out that consistent, interaction-based experiences (which older learners often lack) may be at the root of phonological attainment, as opposed to mere age.

Chapter 3, “Accent and the individual”, treats individual differences. The discussion is linked to Chapter 2 because learner-specific factors are often ignored in research that investigates age-related attainment. Intrinsic individual differences considered include aptitude, memory, hemispheric preference, learning styles, and gender. Also considered is how accent plays a part in a person’s self-representation; the author presents studies that examine topics such as “linguistic ego”, acculturation, and learner agency. Motivation, attitudes, and experience in the target-language culture are also considered as integral to the formation of the L2 user’s linguistic self. Several studies that examine exceptional language learners, or those who reach a native-like level despite a post-pubescent start, are reviewed, with the conclusion that these high-achieving learners do not necessarily have a special talent for mimicry. Instead, exceptional learners are those who consistently interact in the target language across a range of contexts, and they tend to report a strong commitment to the target language and culture. The author emphasizes that there remains a gap in the field’s understanding of the confluence of these intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 analyze the place of accent in society and legal spheres. Chapter 4, “Accent and society”, begins with the myth of a neutral accent and where this myth originated. A historical look at how national identity is tied into language focuses mostly on the United States. The author questions whether a foreign accent really impedes communication, and examines various studies regarding comprehensibility/intelligibility and actual comprehension. The author extends this discussion by detailing studies of linguistic accommodation and language attitudes, which may affect whether or not a listener understands a speaker. Accent stereotypes reinforce social categorizations of human beings; this section focuses on reactions to non-native speakers (for example, the character Apu in The Simpsons TV show), call center workers who are encouraged to adopt “neutral” accents, and international teaching assistants who must negotiate their own language proficiency with the preconceived attitudes of their undergraduate students. Moyer notes that accent stereotypes tend to exaggerate cultural differences.

An extension of workplace and accent issues, Chapter 5, “Accent and the law”, deals with how the prestige or stigma of certain accents may have legal consequences. Linguistic profiling and accent discrimination are discussed in terms of perceptions of the employability of foreign-accented individuals. Legal cases that have challenged accent discrimination are reviewed, along with a discussion of how the Equal Employment Opportunity Office interprets Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin) . The author points out that in many accent discrimination cases, accent is confused with language ability, and no real effort to determine communicative competence of the plaintiff is made. Furthermore, accent interacts with social class in perceptions of guilt and credibility of witnesses.

Chapter 6, “Accent and instruction”, asks what instructional methods are successful in helping individuals eliminate or reduce their accents. The author points out the discrepancy between lay attitudes towards accent (it can be eliminated if one tries hard enough) versus scholarly views (intelligibility should be the main goal for L2 users). Audiolingual drills, still popular in commercial products today, are reviewed alongside the Communicative Language Teaching paradigm, which is popular in university settings. Metalinguistic techniques such as explicit practice, awareness, self-monitoring and feedback are considered, alongside the concepts “attention”, “input”, and “intake”. Pros and cons of computer-assisted pronunciation training and the possible interference of L2 orthography are also discussed. This chapter ends with a discussion of how accent figures prominently in proficiency standards, specifically the Common European Framework, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the Interagency Language Roundtable.

The concluding chapter, Chapter 7, summarizes the argument against expecting L2 users to achieve a native-like accent, and reinforces the position that intelligibility is a more realistic goal. Directions for future research in neurocognitive processing, socio-psychological factors (attitudes, motivation and affect), and experience versus age-of-onset are suggested.


This book would suit a course in Second Language Acquisition for graduate students who have already been exposed to the basics and want to delve deeper into unresolved controversies and unanswered questions regarding pedagogical, theoretical and social issues of pronunciation and accent. Novice readers may want to consult a dictionary of linguistic terminology; although a glossary is included, some terms (such as “mora”, “epenthesis”, and “coda”) are not defined for the reader. Individual chapters would do well as supplements to more nuanced discussions (for example, Chapter 5 brings up a legal loophole in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretations of accent discrimination, while Chapter 2 would be of interest to K-12 teachers who want a better understanding of why Length-of-Residence is not necessarily an accurate indicator of proficiency). More experienced researchers will benefit from the author’s suggestions for future work; for example, Chapter 3 calls for more investigations into learners’ intentions to assimilate linguistically and culturally, and why some learners deliberately choose not to sound native. Moyer rightly draws attention to the disconnected way that quantitative studies treat individual differences, and calls for more qualitative, introspective research that links accent and sense of self.

While Chapter 6 mentions current standard models that involve pronunciation, the discussion would have been strengthened by an acknowledgement of the wide-reaching impact of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in K-12 contexts in the United States. The English Language Arts standards of CCSS specifically reference speaking and language abilities, and seem to betray an ideology of the neutral accent and native-speaker centeredness; for example, in Fifth Grade, students are expected to:

Report on a topic or text or present an opinion, sequencing ideas logically and using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; _speak clearly at an understandable pace_ [my emphasis]. (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.5.4;

Moyer’s discussion of challenges that L2 users face in phonetic, phonological and prosody contrasts (Chapter 1) is clearly relevant here, and CCSS seem to betray what Moyer calls “prescriptive notions of accent standards” (p. 171) since expectations for speaking “clearly at an understandable pace” will vary regionally and socially. Indeed, both content and language educators would benefit from a deeper understanding of how L2 accent develops.

Considering the discussion of age-of-onset versus length-of-residence in the influence of phonological attainment, a section devoted to child L2 users would have been suitable. Chapter 2 includes a section on early bilingualism, but is limited to the advantages that bilingualism has for phonological awareness. Given that many people, including teachers, conflate accent with language ability, it would have been valuable to report on issues surrounding comprehensibility/intelligibility, actual comprehension, and attitudes concerning child L2 users.

This book is a valuable resource for both students and experts alike who are primarily interested in adult second language contexts. The author succinctly summarizes major movements in the field of Second Language Acquisition and probes into the corners that have only been partially investigated. A wide range of studies is offered as evidence to support the discussions, and the review of counter-indicating studies is scholarly and unbiased. There is a balanced critique of issues such as the Critical Period Hypothesis (Chapter 2) and methodological issues in attitudinal studies (Chapter 4). The chapters cohere seamlessly, and support each other’s content. The author is obviously an expert in her field of L2 phonology, and her articulate discussions are stimulating for novice and expert readers alike.


Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2014). Accessed June 21, 2014.


Mary Hudgens Henderson is a PhD Candidate at the University of New Mexico, specializing in Hispanic Linguistics. Her research focuses on teaching K-12 students about linguistic variation to increase sociolinguistic knowledge and tolerant language attitudes in the larger community.

Page Updated: 15-Dec-2014