LINGUIST List 17.3392

Mon Nov 20 2006

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

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <>

Directory         1.    Andrea Osburne, Acquiring a Non-Native Phonology

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

Announced at AUTHOR: Hansen, Jette G.TITLE: Acquiring a Non-Native PhonologySUBTITLE: Linguistic Constraints and Social BarriersPUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group LtdYEAR: 2006

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

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

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

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

After an introductory chapter, Hansen provides in chapter 2 a lengthyliterature review, organized conveniently around the subtopics oflinguistic constraints (transfer, developmental effects, linguisticenvironment, markedness), social effects (social identity, gender, languageuse, attitudes and motivation) and variation (linguistic, social, and taskeffects). She also provides a brief outline of Vietnamese phonology,compared to English; one weakness here is that despite the author'sinterest in variation, she does not specify the (apparently southern)nature of the dialect depicted, and this brings up questions when we get tochapter 3, where the participants in the study, a married couple, areintroduced. Despite the many details about their immigration andadjustment to American life, we don't learn whether their native dialect isindeed the one described in chapter 2 (because of internal displacements ofthe population of Vietnam during the past half century, this cannot simplybe assumed). We also don't learn any specifics about what exposure toEnglish, if any, the couple might have had before arriving in the U.S., oranything about their language learning in the year between their arrivaland the beginning of the study, other than the fact that the wife wasenrolled in a beginner-level course and the husband seemed to be moreadvanced. This omission is particularly unfortunate because some of thepronunciations described might have been influenced by earlierorthographical learning--[t] in the second syllable of 'structure', forexample (p. 69), or an affricate instead of a stop as the final consonantin 'headache' (p. 83). Chapter 3 does, however, provide extensiveinformation on data collection and analysis. We learn that both readingdata and interview data were collected three times during the study, atthree-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, withattention given to high intra-rater and inter-rater reliability. Thedescriptive and analytical statistical procedures used are also explained;the author made use of the VARBRUL program to study linguistic and socialvariation, with the latter being examined using a heuristic approach. Theextensive questionnaires employed appear in appendices, and these werecombined with observations by the author and language use logs filled outby the participants.

Chapter 4 provides details of the linguistic analysis. With regard tosyllable onsets, single-consonant onsets were usually produced, though somemostly involved feature change (stops for interdental fricatives, forexample). Two-consonant onsets were produced less accurately generally inthat a consonant was omitted, though feature change was common as well, andthree-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 improvedfrom time 1 to time 3 (p. 64).

For syllabic codas, the picture was very different. While again singleconsonant codas were produced more accurately than double consonants, whichin turn were more accurately produced than sequences of three, the overallpercentage was much lower--41% (p. 95); absence of one or more consonantswas the most common source of inaccuracy as opposed to feature change orepenthesis (pp. 71-72). Interestingly, in terms of similar findings ofother studies (such as Benson 1988 and Osburne 1996), voiced codaconsonants were produced less accurately than corresponding voicelessconsonants (p. 80), and a preceding diphthong was more likely to beassociated with a coda consonant being omitted than a preceding monophthong(p. 76, p. 83). In studying language acquisition, when amultiple-consonant coda is only partially produced, it is difficult to knowwhether we are dealing with only ''absence'' of a consonant or itsdeletion--in other words, whether a consonant is or is not present in alearner's underlying representation. In analysis, the author takes theconservative view that such omissions should be described as ''absence.''While such a view is safe and cannot be faulted, sometimes the linguisticdata do provide evidence to suggest how a determination might bemade--morphophonemic variation, for example--and it would have been usefulto look for it. For example, the author notes that final voicelesspostalveolar fricatives, as single codas, were usually produced as [k] or[s] (p. 84). But when this consonant should have been followed by [t] aspart of a coda cluster (but the [t] was ''absent''), it was accuratelyproduced (p. 85). Could this suggest that the underlying cluster hadindeed been acquired, and the postalveolar fricative was not modifiedbecause it was no longer really ''final''? The author could usefully haveconsidered such cases.

Chapter 5 addresses the meaning of the findings in terms of linguisticfactors. The primacy of transfer processes in the developing secondlanguage phonological system, identified in previous studies, is confirmed. Explanations given for the emergence of particular pronunciations areplausibly based on the nature of phonological processes or phoneticfactors; for example, Hansen cites work on the McGurk effect to explain theearly salience of final [p] as compared to other voiceless stops, andpoints out the use of epenthesis in allowing newly emergent Englishpronunciations to conform to Vietnamese syllable structure (p. 98). Shenotes 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 onsetsbefore codas and the reduction of consonant clusters, are also identified. Interestingly, the author speculates that the noticeably late acquisitionof interdental fricatives might also be developmentally based (p. 106),though since Vietnamese lacks them, transfer might be cited as well. Thereis an extensive discussion of markedness factors, with the author notingthat while markedness considerations are clearly evidenced in the moreaccurate production of relatively unmarked single-consonant onsets andcodas as compared to clusters, transfer factors can be seen to be moreinfluential in the fact that learners did not favor a consonant-vowelsyllable structure (p. 108). She notes that her data on clusters supportsEckman's (1991) interlanguage structural conformity hypothesis (p. 112),and also briefly discusses sonority considerations as well as otherfactors, such as linguistic environment.

The next part of the book addresses social aspects of acquisition. Chapter6, ''Social Barriers,'' discusses such topics as the difficulty oneparticipant has interacting with native speakers, the differentpersonalities of the two participants and their effect on the ability toget English feedback, their formal ESL instruction in the U.S. during thestudy, and their gradual adjustment to American life. The emphasis is onhow social identity and social environment affect their opportunities touse English. In Chapter 7, the question of the effect of these socialfactors specifically on the participants' acquisition of syllabic onsetsand codas is taken up, as the author summarizes her findings. Theimportance of native language transfer effects in constrainingdevelopmental factors is again emphasized, but Hansen considers that socialbarriers may also have affected her two participants' progress throughdevelopmental stages.

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


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


Benson, B. (1988). Universal preference for the open syllable as anindependent process in interlanguage phonology. Language Learning, 38,221-242.

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

Eckman, F. (1991). The structural conformity hypothesis and theacquisition 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: Acase study of a Vietnamese Speaker. Applied Linguistics, 17, 164-181.

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

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

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

Sato, C. (1984). Phonological processes in second language acquisition:Another look at interlanguage syllable structure. Language Learning, 34,43-57.


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