James Emil Flege | biography | L2 research

I was born in Cincinnati (OH) in 1950, a third-generation German-American. After
graduating from St. Xavier High School in 1968, I attended two other Jesuit institutions,
John Carroll University in Cleveland (OH) and the Rome campus of Loyola University
(Chicago), graduating with a BA Hon in English and French in 1972.

The following year I studied General Linguistics and Psychology at the University of
Geneva on a Fulbright grant. This was my first exposure to linguistics, developmental
psychology, and to a world in which bilingualism was the norm rather than an exception.
It was here in Switzerland that I observed something that would later become a core
tenet of the Speech Learning Model (SLM).

I arrived in Geneva at the age of 21 years with a lot of school French under my belt, but
little actual experience speaking or hearing that language. I was dismayed to discover
that I often didn't understand what was being said to me. And, even worse: when I
actually knew how to say something I wanted to express, the topic had often shifted by
the time I had gotten around to formulating my intended utterance. Following this rather
rude awakening, I applied myself diligently to mastering French, finding that cafés and
bars were, in the final analysis, the best of classrooms.

I was especially taken with the sound of French, and developed the habit of imitating
radio announcers in the privacy of my room. One morning I awoke to a sore throat.
Thinking it was tonsillitis, I prepared myself for a trip to the doctor and a shot of
penicillin. But as the day wore on, I realized that my sore throat wasn't tonsillitis at all. It
was the result of an overly enthusiastic production of the French uvular "r", which
differs phonetically from its English counterpart. None of my professors in college had
divulged to me the existence of phonemes, much less the importance of
language-specific differences in  phonetic implementation. As a result, I had the great
good fortune to discover these basic concepts on my own, and to stumble upon the
existence of what we would later call the "new" sounds in an L2.

Some years later, reflecting on this early L2 learning experience, I realized that even
though I was beyond the so-called "critical period" I had,  without knowing it, auditorily
detected the phonetic differences between French and English "r". And once this
occurred, my still-intact speech learning mechanisms had begun working to convert the
effects of auditory stimulation into structures that would subsequently guide segmental
articulation, just as routinely happens in monolingual L1 acquisition. I reasoned that
because of its perceived phonetic dissimilarity from English /r/, the uvular /r/ of French
is readily learnable by young American adults. At least those who frequent cafés and
bars in Geneva, Switzerland.
photos above: a younger
me; the site of my former
lab at the University of
Alabama at Birmingham
Jim Flege
the Spain Rehabilitation Hospital, University of Alabama at Birmingham
The research specialty I developed at Indiana University was Experimental Phonetics.
Robert F. (Bob) Port, my thesis advisor, channeled Motor Theory to his students. My
PhD dissertation, by no means stellar, had the advantage of being the first to focus on
phonetic aspects of second language (L2) acquisition.

Having developed a taste for empirical research, but finding little of interest in the field
of Linguistics, I began looking for a new academic home. I spent three years as an NIH
post-doctoral trainee in Speech and Hearing Sciences, first at University of Florida and
then at the Department of Communicative Disorders at Northwestern.
Career at UAB
Following three rewarding and intense years of post-doctoral research, I was offered a
position in the Department of Biocommunications at the University of Alabama at
Birmingham (UAB).

There were several  things which made this position unusual. To begin, there was the
name of the department I had joined at UAB. At most other universities it would have
been called  "Speech and Hearing Sciences" or the like.

The Department, a "Basic Science" unit of the Medical School, ran two clinics but
offered no courses and had no students. My first lab was located in the basement of a
Rehabilitation Hospital that had been constructed just prior to the end of the
segregation era while Lurleen Wallace served as governor of Alabama on behalf of her
husband George C. Wallace. (This fact might well have accounted for the presence of  
two "separate but equal" men's bathrooms in close proximity to my lab.)

I originally moved to Alabama with a heavy heart, but learned to love the State and its
people. Only in retrospect did I realize how truly fortunate I was to have landed
unexpectedly right in the heart of Dixie. The position I had been offered at the UAB
Medical Center provided an unfettered opportunity for doing basic research with very
few interruptions. I had somehow managed to find a job that, by all rights, could not
possibly exist: a hard money, tenure track position with access to good research
facilities and no teaching responsibilities.
After returning to the U.S. I worked for a year in the "real" world selling books for Little,
Brown & Co. and delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service. I began graduate school at
the University of Florida (Gainesville) in 1974, obtaining an MA degree in Linguistics
later followed by MA and PhD degrees (1977, 1979), also in Linguistics, from Indiana
One of several reasons that lead me to study the L2 speech learning of Italian
immigrants to Canada was the fact that I had studied in Rome  during the 1970-1971
academic year. As part of our NIH sponsored L2 research, I was being exposed to  
large doses of Italian-accented English. Questions regarding the interface between the
English and Italian phonetic systems brought me to Padua in 1995 for a mini-sabbatical.
After that, I became a frequent visitor to Italy. Several years later I was invited to lecture
in Rome, where I met my future wife, Tullia. My visits to Italy became more frequent still.

When I began my research career in the basement of the Spain Rehabilitation Hospital
at UAB I was convinced  that I could resolve in short order all of the mysteries  
shrouding the development of "dual" and "competing" phonetic systems by L2 learners
and bilinguals. How wrong I was. As our research proceeded, I found that interesting
new questions were arising at a faster rate than old questions could successfully be laid
to rest.
A transition
The funds provided by this initial NIH grant and those that followed allowed me to  
recruit some very capable and energetic young researchers from North America,
Europe, Australia and Asia. The NIH funding, the first ever for L2 speech research,
allowed my research team to venture beyond Birmingham to recruit participants for
behavioral research examining L2 speech learning. We collected data in various
American states and Puerto Rico, and also in Canada, France, Sweden, Japan,
Australia, Finland, Italy and The Netherlands.

My academic career flourished. We moved into a larger lab, and then into an even
larger lab, this time with windows! I was promoted to the rank of full Professor in 1995.
Part of my success was due to my good fortune in locating excellent external
collaborators. With Grace Yeni-Komshian of the University of Maryland, I carried out a
large-scale study of Korean immigrants to the US. With Ian R. A. MacKay, I carried out
seminal research examining Italian immigrants living in the Ottawa, ON region.
Given my lack of interest in things that most Southern men enjoy (football, huntin',
fishin' and NASCAR racin'), I was left with a dangerous amount of free time on my
hands.  I used a lot of that time to write grant proposals. Despite any previous
experience with grant proposals, I got lucky and managed to secure my first funding
from NIH just 18 months after arriving in Birmingham.
One morning in Rome I had an epiphany as I travelled by bus to the CNR. I was
annoyed that morning because I was squeezed in from every side, one hand clutching
the overhead grip, the other hand my wallet. Many of my fellow passengers were recent
African and Asian immigrants. Some carried plastic sacks of merchandise to sell on the
street. I thought to myself "This bus wouldn't be so crowded without all these
immigrants". And then I had a flash of insight. The American professor who had
developed a research career focusing on the L2 speech learning of immigrants had  
himself become an immigrant. Indeed. Just like the people crowded around me on the
bus that morning, I too was an immigrant in every sense of the word.
A new life in Italy
It was during my stay at the CNR that I began to have the strange sensation of not
knowing where I lived. I  began telling people that I "commuted" between Birmingham,
AL and Rome. I read American newspapers flying East and Italian newspapers flying
West. Before I knew it I had become a Gold Medallion frequent flier and was greeted by
name by the Delta flight attendants.
I came to realize that to properly finish the job I had started would require not the 25
years I had first imagined, but 50 -- perhaps even 50 + 50 -- years of intense
grant-driven research. And so I began considering other opportunities and challenges,
and the possibility of leaving the field I had helped establish in the now rapidly growing
sub-discipline of L2 speech.

Tullia and I were married in the Spring of 2005. As my research program at UAB began
reaching what seemed to be a logical endpoint, I had the opportunity, thanks to Cristina
Burani, to spend a year as a visiting researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences
and Technologies at the CNR in Rome.
In 2006 I retired from UAB and became a resident of Tuscania (VT). There are very few
speakers of English in this small town in northern Lazio. I now had both the
of large doses of native speaker input as well as a real
need to learn Italian.
Consequently I learned Italian, which has become my primary language.
It is quite true that "younger" learners normally have a better outcome than "later"
learners do. Our research showed this time and again. But the playing field is never
level for adult and child learners. This is because nearly all adults lack one or both of
the two ingredients that are essential for successful language learning at any age.
Every child who learns an L1, but very few learners of an L2 have these two magic
Ingredients: the
availability of large amounts of authentic input from native speakers
and a compelling
 need to use that language for everyday communication.
My life in Tuscania has been full and satisfying. I have spent a lot of time hiking through
the countryside trying to follow the course of the ancient Via Clodia. I have become
active in community groups working to help Tuscania increase tourism, something
important given the current economic crisis and reductions in farm subsidies.
Our home is located on one of the most picturesque streets of the Centro Storico.
When the "cruise boat people"  arrive from the nearby port of Civitavecchia we often
witness a procession of tourists passing before our house. The tour guide walks ahead
of her charges, a flag raised high.
Over the years I have written a great deal about L2 acquisition. My research lead me,
and then eventually others, to question the view that L2 speech learning is doomed to
failure if it occurs following the end of a "critical period." I'll admit to having had doubts
about this theory right from the start, even before the results of our research program
led me for well-founded scientific reasons to reject such a conclusion.
tourists visiting Tuscania 1
touristis visiting Tuscania, in northern Lazio
Jim Flege - a short biography
Above: Tourists on a
whirlwind bus tour of
photos above: a few of
Tuscania's many
photos above: several
sections of Tuscania's
medieval walls
photos above: agriculture
remains Tuscania's primary
economic activity
photos above: several of
Tuscania's many
photos above: it's always
a joy to walk in the
countryside around
On occasion I am out in front of the house with our Jack Russell terrier, dressed in one
of my colorful native costumes, puttering with plants or chatting with a neighbor. I smile
at the people passing by and many of them smile back. Sometimes a member of the
tour group pauses to take a picture of me or, more often, the dog. I'm glad to have
finally found a rewarding second career, that of providing a dash of local color for
visitors to Tuscania.
Living in Tuscania also offered me the opportunity to experience first-hand something I
had studied academically for so many years. It gave me a chance to see what L2
learning is like "on the inside". And I got to understand how it feels to struggle to make
sense of an unfamiliar world and to communicate, very awkwardly at first, in an L2.