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LINGUIST List 17.3392

Mon Nov 20 2006

Review: Language Acquisition: Sorace et al. (2006)

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <lauralinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Andrea Osburne, Acquiring a Non-Native Phonology

Message 1: Acquiring a Non-Native Phonology
Date: 20-Nov-2006
From: Andrea Osburne <OsburneAmail.ccsu.edu>
Subject: Acquiring a Non-Native Phonology

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/17/17-821.html
AUTHOR: Hansen, Jette G.
TITLE: Acquiring a Non-Native Phonology
SUBTITLE: Linguistic Constraints and Social Barriers
PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd
YEAR: 2006

Andrea G. Osburne, Department of English, Central Connecticut State University

The process of adult acquisition of a second language phonology is a
lengthy one, which makes it particularly difficult to study. It is hard to
follow learners across years and decades to watch the process unfold, so,
as the author of this monograph points out, the majority of studies have
been synchronic rather than longitudinal. They have therefore focused on
more salient transfer and developmental phenomena with less information
about long-term processes. Hansen proposes to remedy this situation by
reporting on a year-length study of the English phonological acquisition of
two adult Vietnamese speakers.

The choice of Vietnamese as the native language of the participants is a
good one, since it gives Hansen an opportunity to provide a fresh
perspective on an area in which there is already a considerable published
literature, and to work with a language which has always been considered a
good candidate for examining the interplay of transfer and developmental
factors because of its reported preference for closed syllables over less
marked open ones (Sato 1984). Hence, like other studies, this one
concentrates on syllable structure, with a focus on onsets and codas.

Hansen also proposes to enrich the existing literature in this area by
combining examination of both linguistic and social factors in the
acquisition process--something which, as she notes, has also rarely been done.

After an introductory chapter, Hansen provides in chapter 2 a lengthy
literature review, organized conveniently around the subtopics of
linguistic constraints (transfer, developmental effects, linguistic
environment, markedness), social effects (social identity, gender, language
use, attitudes and motivation) and variation (linguistic, social, and task
effects). She also provides a brief outline of Vietnamese phonology,
compared to English; one weakness here is that despite the author's
interest in variation, she does not specify the (apparently southern)
nature of the dialect depicted, and this brings up questions when we get to
chapter 3, where the participants in the study, a married couple, are
introduced. Despite the many details about their immigration and
adjustment to American life, we don't learn whether their native dialect is
indeed the one described in chapter 2 (because of internal displacements of
the population of Vietnam during the past half century, this cannot simply
be assumed). We also don't learn any specifics about what exposure to
English, if any, the couple might have had before arriving in the U.S., or
anything about their language learning in the year between their arrival
and the beginning of the study, other than the fact that the wife was
enrolled in a beginner-level course and the husband seemed to be more
advanced. This omission is particularly unfortunate because some of the
pronunciations described might have been influenced by earlier
orthographical learning--[t] in the second syllable of 'structure', for
example (p. 69), or an affricate instead of a stop as the final consonant
in 'headache' (p. 83). Chapter 3 does, however, provide extensive
information on data collection and analysis. We learn that both reading
data and interview data were collected three times during the study, at
three-month intervals, and that the focus of the analysis was,
appropriately, the interview data (in subsequent individual instances,
however, it is not always clear which set of data is being discussed).
Suitably meticulous transcription and coding protocols are described, with
attention given to high intra-rater and inter-rater reliability. The
descriptive and analytical statistical procedures used are also explained;
the author made use of the VARBRUL program to study linguistic and social
variation, with the latter being examined using a heuristic approach. The
extensive questionnaires employed appear in appendices, and these were
combined with observations by the author and language use logs filled out
by the participants.

Chapter 4 provides details of the linguistic analysis. With regard to
syllable onsets, single-consonant onsets were usually produced, though some
mostly involved feature change (stops for interdental fricatives, for
example). Two-consonant onsets were produced less accurately generally in
that a consonant was omitted, though feature change was common as well, and
three-consonant onsets other than /skw/ were rarely produced accurately,
with one or more consonants usually being omitted. However, in total, 87%
of the onsets received target-like pronunciation, and accuracy improved
from time 1 to time 3 (p. 64).

For syllabic codas, the picture was very different. While again single
consonant codas were produced more accurately than double consonants, which
in turn were more accurately produced than sequences of three, the overall
percentage was much lower--41% (p. 95); absence of one or more consonants
was the most common source of inaccuracy as opposed to feature change or
epenthesis (pp. 71-72). Interestingly, in terms of similar findings of
other studies (such as Benson 1988 and Osburne 1996), voiced coda
consonants were produced less accurately than corresponding voiceless
consonants (p. 80), and a preceding diphthong was more likely to be
associated with a coda consonant being omitted than a preceding monophthong
(p. 76, p. 83). In studying language acquisition, when a
multiple-consonant coda is only partially produced, it is difficult to know
whether we are dealing with only ''absence'' of a consonant or its
deletion--in other words, whether a consonant is or is not present in a
learner's underlying representation. In analysis, the author takes the
conservative view that such omissions should be described as ''absence.''
While such a view is safe and cannot be faulted, sometimes the linguistic
data do provide evidence to suggest how a determination might be
made--morphophonemic variation, for example--and it would have been useful
to look for it. For example, the author notes that final voiceless
postalveolar fricatives, as single codas, were usually produced as [k] or
[s] (p. 84). But when this consonant should have been followed by [t] as
part of a coda cluster (but the [t] was ''absent''), it was accurately
produced (p. 85). Could this suggest that the underlying cluster had
indeed been acquired, and the postalveolar fricative was not modified
because it was no longer really ''final''? The author could usefully have
considered such cases.

Chapter 5 addresses the meaning of the findings in terms of linguistic
factors. The primacy of transfer processes in the developing second
language phonological system, identified in previous studies, is confirmed.
Explanations given for the emergence of particular pronunciations are
plausibly based on the nature of phonological processes or phonetic
factors; for example, Hansen cites work on the McGurk effect to explain the
early salience of final [p] as compared to other voiceless stops, and
points out the use of epenthesis in allowing newly emergent English
pronunciations to conform to Vietnamese syllable structure (p. 98). She
notes that some aspects of transfer persist over time, while for others,
slow accommodations to the second language gradually take place.
Developmental factors involving acquisition, like the acquisition of onsets
before codas and the reduction of consonant clusters, are also identified.
Interestingly, the author speculates that the noticeably late acquisition
of interdental fricatives might also be developmentally based (p. 106),
though since Vietnamese lacks them, transfer might be cited as well. There
is an extensive discussion of markedness factors, with the author noting
that while markedness considerations are clearly evidenced in the more
accurate production of relatively unmarked single-consonant onsets and
codas as compared to clusters, transfer factors can be seen to be more
influential in the fact that learners did not favor a consonant-vowel
syllable structure (p. 108). She notes that her data on clusters supports
Eckman's (1991) interlanguage structural conformity hypothesis (p. 112),
and also briefly discusses sonority considerations as well as other
factors, such as linguistic environment.

The next part of the book addresses social aspects of acquisition. Chapter
6, ''Social Barriers,'' discusses such topics as the difficulty one
participant has interacting with native speakers, the different
personalities of the two participants and their effect on the ability to
get English feedback, their formal ESL instruction in the U.S. during the
study, and their gradual adjustment to American life. The emphasis is on
how social identity and social environment affect their opportunities to
use English. In Chapter 7, the question of the effect of these social
factors specifically on the participants' acquisition of syllabic onsets
and codas is taken up, as the author summarizes her findings. The
importance of native language transfer effects in constraining
developmental factors is again emphasized, but Hansen considers that social
barriers may also have affected her two participants' progress through
developmental stages.

In her conclusion, the author reiterates the importance of studying both
linguistic and social constraints on the acquisition of a second language
phonology. She recognizes and successfully justifies limitations to the
study in terms of the limited area of phonology (syllable margins) examined
and the small number of participants (two) and native languages (one). She
gives sensible suggestions for future research, and, in an epilogue,
describes her subsequent contact with the couple who served as her


This book makes a fine contribution to the literature on second language
phonology. The extensive presentation and tabulation of a large amount of
data makes it a valuable resource, and the reported findings on the
interplay of transfer and developmental factors confirm and contribute to
the emerging picture of how second language phonological systems develop.
A single year of study is not long enough to provide the information on
long-term second language phonological development which researchers crave,
however. Progress is generally found to be slow, so that even longer-term
studies, like Riney and Flege (1998) and Riney and Takagi (1999; both 3 1/2
years), Ross (1994), and Osburne (1996; both 6 years) are not really long
enough. Adult speakers of a native language, whose phonological acquisition
is presumably complete, can undergo changes in pronunciation over the
course of a lifetime if they experience extensive exposure to other
dialects (see Chambers 1992 for discussion). There is no reason to
automatically assume that supposedly ''fossilized'' second language speakers
might not do the same. But without studies spanning many years and even
decades it won't be possible to find out. In her conclusion, Hansen
recommends that longer-term studies be done. Perhaps, since she reports
that she continues to be in contact with her participants, she might
eventually consider a follow-up study herself.


Benson, B. (1988). Universal preference for the open syllable as an
independent process in interlanguage phonology. Language Learning, 38,

Chambers, J. (1992). Dialect acquisition. Language, 68, 673-705.

Eckman, F. (1991). The structural conformity hypothesis and the
acquisition of consonant clusters in the interlanguage of ESL learners.
Second Language Research, 9, 3, 234-252.

Osburne, A. G. (1996). Final cluster reduction in English L2 speech: A
case study of a Vietnamese Speaker. Applied Linguistics, 17, 164-181.

Riney, T. J., & Takagi, N. (1999). Global foreign accent and voice onset
time among Japanese EFL speakers. Language Learning, 49, 275-302.

Riney, T. J., & Flege, J. E. (1998). Changes over time in global foreign
accent and liquid identifiability and accuracy. Studies in Second Language
Acquisition, 20, 213-243.

Ross, S. (1994). The ins and outs of paragoge in Japanese English
interphonology. Second Language Research, 10, 1-24.

Sato, C. (1984). Phonological processes in second language acquisition:
Another look at interlanguage syllable structure. Language Learning, 34,


Andrea G. Osburne is a professor emerita of linguistics at Central
Connecticut State University. Her main interest is second language phonology.

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