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Learning a second language is a process many people go through at least once in their lifetime. While it is a leisure activity for some people, it is a necessity for others in order to survive in the job market or prove themselves valuable in this globalized society. The craze for second language education has long gone overboard in some countries, such as Korea. Over half of Korea’s educational budget goes into its English education, with private academies (“hahg-wons”) using cheap advertising catchphrases such as “You can speak like an American in just a month!” What’s that supposed to mean? “Speaking like an American”?

Today, the word “fluency” in the realm of speech production is interpreted differently across the globe. For some people, it means to sound like a native speaker of the language. For others, it means to be able to communicate in that language without difficulty. For these private academies and learning centers in Korea, speaking like an American means to be fluent in English, which (to them at least) means to sound like a native speaker of English. Things become especially more complicated since there are numerous ways to “properly” pronounce the English language. Nevertheless, there often is a clear distinction between native speakers and non-native speakers, regardless of how well one can express oneself using a language. It appears to me that each language contains a certain “phonetic” range of acceptable pronunciation in order for it to sound “native.”

As a Korean who certainly has a Korean accent when speaking in English, I deviate from this range when I talk in English. However, native speakers hardly deviate from this range unless they are intentionally trying to do so. For instance, my friends who are English native speakers do not deviate from the range even when they have food in their mouths, whereas I find it extremely difficult to speak properly with my mouth full. But when I’m talking in Korean, my native language, I have no problem sounding “native” even when my mouth freezes from extreme coldness.

This is a very funny feeling, since I am well aware of how certain words and syllables are supposed to sound, or rather, how I wish to pronounce them out in English. When I’m speaking, I know my goal pronunciation does not match what I am actually saying. What’s even funnier is that this disparity is the greatest when it comes to speaking, as opposed to reading, writing, or listening.

Research has suggested that there are distinct activation sites in Broca’s area for native and second languages for people who second languages acquired after early childhood. However, according to fMRI evidence, activation sites are about the same in Wernicke’s area for both native and second languages, regardless the age of acquisition.

Considering that Broca’s area is generally responsible for speech production and Wernicke’s area for language comprehension, this seems to serve as an explanation for my personal experiences with non-native languages. While the neural evidence is eye-opening for me personally, it will hardly please the private academies and English-learning centers in Korea whose top priority is to help students pronounce English like a native speaker.

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