LINGUIST List 12.2604

Thu Oct 18 2001

Review: Major, Foreign Accent

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Simin Karimi at or Terry Langendoen at


  1. Marc Picard, review of Major, Foreign Accent: Second Language Phonology

Message 1: review of Major, Foreign Accent: Second Language Phonology

Date: Wed, 17 Oct 2001 22:36:41 -0400
From: Marc Picard <>
Subject: review of Major, Foreign Accent: Second Language Phonology

Major, Roy C. (2001) Foreign Accent: The Ontogeny and Phylogeny of
Second Language Phonology. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, ix+211pp+4pp
errata, hardback ISBN 0-8058-3813-9, $49.95 ($22.50 prepaid).

Reviewed by Marc Picard, Concordia University

As stated by the author, "the heart of this book [is] the
interrelationship between language transfer and universals" (p. ix). In
essence, it consists of the elaboration of his Ontogeny Phylogeny Model
(OPM) which claims that in second language acquisition (SLA), the basic
pattern in the development of any interlanguage (IL) is that as the
second language (L2) gradually increases, the influence of the first
language (L1) gradually decreases while the effect of universals (U)
first increases and then decreases. The text itself is divided into six
chapters, and this is followed by an extensive reference section of some
40 pages, an author index, and a subject index.

Chapter 1, which is entitled "Preliminaries to Research in Second
Language Phonology", begins by introducing the concept of interlanguage,
and the point is made that "[a]lthough an IL may not have all the
characteristics of a fully developed natural language (especially
beginning learners), researchers generally conclude that the
characteristics of ILs are also characteristics natural languages"
although "there is considerable disagreement as to how much access the
learner has to U[niversal]G[rammar] in SLA" (pp. 5-6). Major then
discusses the Critical Period Hypothesis which claims that nativelike
competence in a language can only be achieved up to a certain age,
usually thought to be puberty. What current research seems to indicate is
that "when acquiring L2 phonology, the younger the better, but how young
and how much better remain unresolved" (p. 11). Next is a description of
the various levels of investigation in second language phonology, namely
segments, syllables, prosody, and what is termed global foreign accent.
The author also shows how the theoretical frameworks employed in L2
phonology have paralleled those of mainstream phonology, ranging from
classical phonemics, generative phonology, natural phonology, nonlinear
phonology (autosegmental, metrical, feature geometry), connectionism and
optimality theory.

Chapter 2 deals with "Linguistic Explanations for Second Language
Phonological Systems", and Major's avowed purpose here, as it is in
Chapter 3, is "to present a wide range of studies that readers can
consult if they wish to pursue the topics in more depth" (p. 30). The
first issue to be addressed is that of L1 transfer and the rise and fall
of Contrastive Analysis (CA). Although the fundamental claim of this
hypothesis that all errors are due to transfer was disproved in the
1970s, "in the 1980s and continuing in the 1990s there has been a
resurgence of interest in transfer with the admission that even though
universals are important, transfer exerts a very strong influence in SLA
and perhaps is a permanent component of IL" (p. 35). Another topic of
discussion revolves around the phonological similarity between the first
and second language, and the oft-observed phenomenon that non-native
speakers (NNSs) will frequently have more difficulty in mastering similar
sounds, e.g., dental and alveolar [t], than those that are perceptually
more dissimilar, e.g., [r] and [R], given that minimal differences are
less likely to be noticed. The rest of the chapter is devoted mainly to
the role of markedness universals in SLA where Eckman's Markedness
Differential Hypothesis (MDH) has played a key role, and the relationship
between perception and production in the context of Flege's Speech
Learning Model (SLM), Best's Perceptual Assimilation Model (PAM), and
Wode's perception-based phonology (PBP).

Chapter 3 concerns "Variation", both on an individual basis and on a
sociolinguistic level. According to the author, a number of individual
factors affect L2 phonology, and "[t]hese include empathy, motivation,
sense of identity, ego permeability, self-esteem, risktaking, anxiety,
and introversion versus extroversion, musicality, and field independence
versus field dependence" while the social and demographic factors that
affect variation "include geography, style, profession, ethnicity, age,
social class, and gender" (p. 66).

The next two chapters are the ones in which Major actually presents his
Ontogeny Phylogeny Model (OPM). Chapter 4, entitled "The Ontogeny
Phylogeny Model of Language Acquisition and Change", is concerned with
the ontogeny component of the OPM which "when referring to language,
deals with language development in an individual person over a period of
time that can span a few moments up to a lifetime" (p. 136). In essence,
the OPM makes a general claim concerning the interrelationship between
the L1, the L2 and U which has the following specific corollaries:

IL develops chronologically in the following manner: (a) L2 increases,
(b) L1 decreases, and (c) U increases and then decreases.
As style becomes more formal, (a) L2 increases, (b) L1 decreases, and
(c) U increases and then decreases.
In similar phenomena, IL develops chronologically in the following
manner: (a) L2 increases slowly, (b) L1 decreases slowly, and (c) U
increases slowly and then decreases slowly. Thus, the role of L1 is much
greater than U for similar phenomena than for less similar ones.
In marked phenomena, IL develops chronologically in the following
manner: (a) L2 increases slowly, (b) L1 decreases and then decreases
slowly, and (c) U increases rapidly and then decreases slowly. Thus, the
role of U is much greater than L1 for marked phenomena than for less
marked ones.

Chapter 5 introduces "The Ontogeny Phylogeny Model in Language Contact
and Change", and deals specifically with the phylogeny aspect of the OPM
which involves "language development and change in populations over part
of a generation or over many generations, as well as changes in whole
languages and language families" (p. 136). The principal issues Major
addresses here are loan phonology, the isolation or assimilation of
immigrant populations, bilingualism and multilingualism, pidgins and
creoles, and dialects in contact. Finally, Chapter 6 is simply a two-page
"Conclusion" which sums up the main points of Major's model.

When all is said and done, the gist of Major's model comes down to this:
"Over time and as style becomes increasingly formal, L2 increases, L1
decreases, and U increases and then decreases" (p. 157). This certainly
seems like an eminently reasonable, straightforward and falsifiable
proposal, and as such should not give rise to much controversy. Much more
problematic, however, is the addendum that "the relative proportions of U
and L1 depend on whether phenomena are normal, similar, or marked" (p.
156). The reason this can lead to multifarious unforeseen complications
is that he never really makes these concepts explicit, with the result
that one could conceivably use them to account for just about anything.
What can we predict will happen when we have two marked
segments/syllables that are normal, or two similar segments/syllables
that are unmarked, or two normal segments/syllables where one is marked
and the other unmarked? And what is it exactly that makes one
segment/syllable normal, another similar, and yet another marked? Or, to
state it another way, on what basis do we determine precisely the degree
of normality, similarity and markedness of every segment/syllable so that
given any two of them, we may be able to determine in advance what will
happen in terms of the increase or decrease of L1 and U? Major's specific
comparison of normal, similar and marked phenomena covers a scant five
pages (pp. 112-6), and never goes beyond citing a few cases where
everything is presupposed. For example, in comparing Spanish /a/ to the
vowels in English words like 'hall', 'Hal' and 'hull', no attempt is
made to justify his claim that the vowels of the last two English words
are more marked than that of the first, or that all three are similar to
/a/. This has the effect of making the whole exercise seem rather futile.

This book is also marred by what can only be qualified as extremely
sloppy editing. One of the first things one notices is the insert inside
the back cover wherein no less than fifteen figures have had to be redone
after the fact because the shadings were wrong. Also, it says there that
"the third column heading in table 1.5 should be FaithBack" instead of
FaithLow but given that this is an OT tableau dealing with the change of
/ae/ (ash) to /E/ (epsilon), this makes no sense. Moreover, the text
which relates to this tableau says that "in Table 1.5 /ae/ becomes /E/
(straight L1 transfer) because FAITHLOW outranks the other two
constraints" (pp. 25-6), and there is no mention of changing FaithLow to
FaithBack there. The sentence continues: "and in 2.4 /ae/ becomes [a]
because FAITHBACK outranks the other two" (pp. 25-6), but there is no
such Table as 2.4. The reader has to figure out that this should be Table
1.6. In fact, the reader has all sorts of other things to puzzle over,
such as: (1) "The overall impression concerning NSs form whether or not
and to what degree a person sounds native . . ." (p. 19) (for "The
overall impression NSs form concerning whether or not..."), (2) "at stage
2, Fig. 4.19 shows the same L1, a slightly larger U, but a smaller L2 and
U compared to Fig. 4.2" (p. 110) (is U larger or smaller?), or (3)
"non-specific-language specific factors" (p. 129) (what is specific
exactly?). Other statements are blatantly inaccurate such as ". . . the
relationship between perception and production of French /ue/ by NSs of
Canadian French and Brazilian Portuguese (neither language has /ue/) . .
." (p. 60). Since Canadian French definitely has /ue/, this is nothing
short of mystifying. Still others are simply nonsensical, e.g.: "In
bilingual communities distinctions are often lost, as in the case of
Canadian French versus the French of Canada . . ." (p. 151)

All in all, then, the feeling one gets in perusing this book is that
everybody was in too much of a hurry to get it out. Although some of the
ideas are not without merit, and the bird's-eye view of previous work in
the field of L2 phonology provides a wealth of references, the end
product simply has too many loose ends to be of any lasting value and

Marc Picard teaches phonetics, phonology and general linguistics in the
TESL Centre at Concordia University in Montreal. He is currently doing
research on differential substitution in L2 phonology as well as on the
place of allophones in L2 pronunciation teaching.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue