Most researchers tend to say that native like pronunciation of an L2 generally requires exposure during childhood. Qualitative exposure, I mean. Most people, those who don’t study languages, think any exposure is fine enough, an element I strongly disagree with.
I recently read an article about “heritage language”. I don’t know if you recall this, but for the past two years, I have been trying to learn languages on my own, as it is said that learning only gets easier once you get the habit of it. I started with Italian and German, and added Spanish on the way (and kissed German bye bye FOREVER, I’ll explain more later). This research I read investigated “the acquisition of Spanish by college students who had overheard the language as children, but who did not otherwise speak or understand Spanish.” (Au, Knightly, Jun, Oh, 2002)
The “overhearers” were compared to people with no exposure at all: their results are clearly better when it comes to pronunciation, but not necessarily when it comes to grammar. In other words, it is easier, according to that research, to learn a language you feel a connection with, and not a language school, or sometimes life, forces you to study.
As I said above, and in numerous articles before, I am learning Italian, it’s been 2 years now and I became fairly good (I won’t write an article such as this one in Italian anytime soon, but that’s my goal nonetheless). The fact that it’s technically my heritage language clearly helped, but not only. I had a deep motivation, which I still have, as I have a personal reason to learn that particular language (it’s my father’s mother tongue, and my parents moved to Italy recently). Heritage language learning is also about that, a personal link that the student can have with the language: it may be because the student overheard his/her grandparents talking in that language, it may be because the student is interested by his/her own family history. Details may vary.
A student of mine was forced to choose Russian over Portuguese, as she is currently studying in a management school. She doesn’t care a bit about Russian, but she wants her CV to be more interesting, so she chose Russian, despite the fact that her grand mother was Portuguese. She started only last September, and she already regrets her choice, as she feels no connection towards Russian, but likes to hear people speaking in Portuguese.
The point is: all languages matters. Choosing to learn a specific language over another is personal, and nobody should say that one language is better than another. I have been told for years that it would have been smarter to fully commit to German, and I felt like a failure because of my lack of results. Turns out, I ditched German, turned to Spanish, and I don’t regret it a bit.
I guess I needed a deeper motivation, and we forget, most of the time, the importance of it. We cannot force someone to learn if that someone is reluctant to do so. Motivation, along with aptitude, is “one of the most important factors determining L2 success”. (Gass, Behney, Plonsky, 2013). If you don’t want to learn a language, the fact that you are young, or your CV will be more interesting, or your parents pay for it (that is often the case for YL or teenagers) won’t be enough to motivate you.
Au. T, Knightly. L, Jun. S, Oh. J, in press. “Overhearing a language during Childhood”, Psychological science, 2002
Fromkin. V, Rodman. R, Hyams. N, An Introduction to Language, 7th edition, 2003, Heinle: Boston
Gass. S, Behney. J, Plonsky. L, Second Language Acquisition, 4th edition, 2013, Routledge: NY