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Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology in Language Acquisition


Phonetics and phonology are two essential parts of linguistic competence. While both are related to the processes of production and perception of language sounds, they differ in their approach and goals. Phonetics is concerned with the physical properties of sounds, i.e., articulatory, acoustic, and perceptual, and aims at a scientific description and classification of all sounds attested in human languages. Phonology, on the other hand, is more focused on how these sounds are organized in single languages, i.e., how they constitute their phonological inventory through distinctive oppositions and how they relate to morpho-syntax and semantics. This course aims at introducing the reader to both disciplines, focusing on the following aspects: (a) the basic concepts of phonetics and phonology, their interrelation, and differences; (b) the use of IPA to write phonetic and phonological transcriptions; (c) the major issues and debates in modern phonological theory.

This series is divided into the following chapters:

Phonetics & Phonology 101: Phonology in Language Acquisition

The last chapter of this 101 series on phonology focuses on the acquisition of phonology. As it has been clarified throughout this series, phonology is regarded by linguistics as (a) a level of analysis of language and (b) the part of linguistic competence concerned with sound production and comprehension. The problems which will be addressed in this chapter are the way phonology is acquired by children and the possibility of acquiring other phonological systems during life.

Phonology in Language Acquisition

A high degree of phonological sensitivity characterizes the first weeks after a child's birth. Indeed, two to three weeks after birth, children are able to extract phonological regularities, i.e., to distinguish between similar phonemes like /ba/ vs. /pa/ and /a/ vs. /i/ (Mehler & Cristophe, 2000). Thus, language acquisition is based, in the first stages, on a phonological and syllabic analysis of the language the child is exposed to. After three to five weeks from birth, children become able to produce vocalic sounds. In the following months, they acquire the capacity to produce consonants. After around eight months, they can segment speech into discrete units relying on various clues: (a) words’ structure (syllables and accents), (b) phonetic constraints, sequences of sounds which are (not) allowed in a given language, (c) transitional probabilities, the probability of a given sound to be followed by another particular sound. During the first year of life, children start to produce words, which they also use to communicate an entire message (dog to communicate - Look at that dog). Between the second and fifth year, language acquisition increases sensibly; by the age of six, children have a detailed representation of phonology, a lexicon of thousands of words, and they use basic morpho-syntactic rules productively (Guasti, 2007).

What distinguishes phonology (Figure 1) from other components of language in language acquisition is the fact that phonological sensitivity appears very early and decreases its efficiency in a short period of time. After the first year of life, children exposed to a single language become unable to acquire phonological distinctions of other languages in the same way as their native language. This means the window for full phonological acquisition is small (Cacciari 2011). What about acquiring a native-like pronunciation of a second language after this period or as an adult?

Figure 1. Phonological diagram of modern Arabic and Hebrew vowels (Shlomital, 2006)

Phonology and Second Language Acquisition: Acquiring a Native-Like Pronunciation

One key question in contemporary research on Second Language Acquisition is whether L2 learners can become native-like in their linguistic competence. Here the focus will be primarily on pronunciation, i.e., the part of the phonological competence that reflects a complete and mature acquisition of the phonological-phonetic interface of an L2. In general, three possible positions are considered within SLA: (1) L2 learners cannot become native-like, (2) L2 learners can become nativelike in some domains but not others, and (3) native-likeness is possible (Van Patten & Benati, 2015).

First, let us define the concept of nativelikeness: “Nativelikeness typically refers to the implicit representation of a language that someone who has grown up speaking that language has. This includes pronunciation, vocabulary, and what most call “grammar.” (Van Patten, Smith & Benati 2020, p. 90). Now that a general definition of nativelikeness has been given, let us consider the three possible outcomes of the question: “Can L2 learners become nativelike?”. The first answer that will be addressed is negative. That is, L2 learners cannot become nativelike. Why would it be so? After all, plenty of people have been living and working in foreign countries, showing that an advanced knowledge of a second language is reachable. Generally, these people (especially those who have learnt the target language as adults) still speak with accents and make grammatical mistakes. There are various arguments supporting this position. It has been observed, for example, that L1 and L2 acquisition differ substantially in that only the second one may have variable outcomes. While L1 acquisition, in standard conditions, leads inevitably to a native competence of the given language, L2 may have different results. Especially in adult acquisition, most learners do not reach a high level of proficiency, or at least not comparable to that of native speakers. The second answer is that learners can become nativelike in some domains but not others. Some scholars suggest that these domains include phonological-phonetic competence. The third answer is that learners can become native-like. According to this answer, there is no domain in which an L2 learner cannot become native-like, including syntax, morphology, and phonology (Van Patten & Benati, 2015) (Figure 2).

Traditional dialects of England
Figure 2. A map illustrating English accents (Hanes, 2012).

There is a series of interesting experiments which supports one of the mentioned answers. Here, a brief account of some of these relevant experiments will be given. In terms of phonology, a number of studies suggest that non-natives cannot achieve native-like pronunciation. In particular, in the studies conducted by James Flege and his colleagues, subjects' age of first exposure to the L2 has been considered a crucial aspect in acquiring a foreign accent. The results of these L2 foreign accent studies do, in fact, support the view that the earlier in life one learns an L2, the better it will be pronounced (Flege & Fletcher, 1992; Flege et al., 1995; Flege et al., 1999). Lardiere (2007) conducted a study on a Chinese speaker, Patty, with English L2 whom she had known for over twenty years. Lardiere found a dissociation between morphosyntactic competence (including inflections) and phonological or phonetic representation. For example, Patty often omitted past tense endings. This behavior is highly unlikely in native speakers of English: “Lardiere reasoned that Patty’s phonological representation was constrained by transfer from her L1, Chinese, which does not allow syllable final clusters. English past tense endings, however, are often part of a consonant cluster. […] In short, Patty may be native-like in terms of morphological and syntactic representation of tense, but because she is non-native-like in terms of phonological competence and/or ability, her past tense use was uneven and non-native-like in terms of production”. (Van Patten & Benati, 2015, 21) One study that presents counterevidence to the idea that L2 learners cannot become native-like in phonology and other domains is a case study that was conducted by Georgette Ioup and her colleagues in 1994 (Ioup, Boustagui, El Tigi, & Moselle 1994). This study presents evidence from two native English speakers who acquired Egyptian Arabic as adults. Both women married Egyptian men and spoke Arabic at home. The researchers collected speech samples and syntactic judgments from their participants. Native Arabic speakers rated the speech samples for nativelikeness. Both women were rated as native speakers, and performance on the syntactic judgment task was consistent with native speaker judgments in all but a handful of cases (Van Patten, Smith & Benati, 2020).

Is Age of First Exposure the Only Factor?

From the mentioned studies, the impression is that the age of first exposure to a foreign language is a major factor influencing the possibility of having one’s accent judged as native-like. Indeed, the later an individual is exposed to a foreign language and starts learning it, the probability that the individual will acquire a native-like accent decreases. Nevertheless, there are a number of counterarguments to this conclusion. First, there are cases, like those studied by Ioup and her colleagues, in which, after an intense and long-lasting immersion in a foreign linguistic environment, learners can become indistinguishable from native speakers, even in pronunciation. To sum up, the age of first exposure is only one factor when considering the acquisition of a foreign accent, although very relevant (Piske & Flege, 2001) (Figure 2). Other factors which have been taken into consideration include length of residence in an L2-speaking country, gender, formal instruction, motivation, language learning aptitude and amount of native language use (Van Patten, Smith & Benati, 2020).

Teacher Talking with Children
Figure 3. A teacher talking with children (Shio, 2017).

Why Acquiring Native Pronunciation is so Difficult and Rare?

As said, acquiring a native-like phonological competence in L2s is quite controversial, especially for adult learners. Most of them, even when reaching an advanced level of proficiency, still show a foreign accent or phonological behaviours which are not native-like.

In sum, 40 years of research has provided the following answer to the question ‘Can L2 learners become nativelike?’ Some do; most don’t. [...] We suspect that the answer to this will come down to the interaction of several factors, but one that has been relatively overlooked in the literature is the issue of input.

Here (Van Patten, Smith & Benati, 2020, 118) by “the issue of input”, the authors mean that the quantity and quality of input which learners are exposed to must be relevant. Consider, for example, individuals that emigrate to a new country by the age of 10 and compare them with those who emigrate by the age of 20. Of course, the difference in age is relevant, but there are also other factors involved. One of them, and which may be crucial, is the difference in the received input. That is, children in a new country are almost immediately exposed to a massive quantity of input from school in addition to that received in other social contexts. This is not the same for late learners, whose input may come from particular social contexts like the immigrant community, where the quality of input is undoubtedly lower (Figure 3).

Dutch immigrants in Canada
Figure 4. Dutch immigrants in Canada (Galt Museum and Archives, 1953).


The general focus of this 101 series has been phonetics and phonology, two interrelated levels of analysis in linguistics. After presenting the main theoretical concepts of both these disciplines, the series has dealt with some debates in phonology. These debates concern how the phonological capacity should be represented and described and how phonological theory should deal with opaque forms.

The last chapter dealt with phonological competence in second language acquisition. In particular, it has been explained how sensitivity to different accents decreases through time, this sensitivity being at its peak in the very first weeks after birth. Adults struggle even more in acquiring a native-like accent in a foreign language for various reasons that include but are not limited to, the age of first exposure. Indeed, acquiring native-likeness as adults is not impossible, as evidenced by some of the experimental cases mentioned throughout this article, but it is quite rare. Factors affecting this rarity are still unclear. Some contemporary scholars like Van Patten, Smith & Benati think the quality and quantity of received input play a significant role in second language acquisition. According to these very same scholars, the goal of future research will be to spot the relevant factors that make input more or less functional to the process of reaching native-likeness.

Bibliographical References

Cacciari, C. (2011). Psicologia del linguaggio. Il Mulino.

Flege, J. E. & Fletcher, K. L. (1992). 'Talker and listener effects on degree of perceived foreign accent', Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 91, 370-389.

Flege, J. E., Munro, M. J. & MacKay, I. R. A. (1995). 'Factors affecting strength of perceived foreign accent in a second language'. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 97, 3125-3134.

Flege, J. E., Yeni-Komshian, G. & Liu, H. (1999). Age constraints on second language acquisition. Journal of Memory & Language, 41, 78-104.

Guasti, T. (2007). L’acquisizione del linguaggio. Cortina.

Ioup, G., Boustagui, E., El Tigi, M., & Moselle, M. (1994). 'Reexamining the critical period hypothesis: A case study of successful adult SLA in a naturalistic environment'. Studies in second language acquisition, 16(1), 73-98.

Lardiere, D. (2007). Acquiring (or assembling) functional categories in second language acquisition. In Proceedings of the 2nd Conference on Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition North America (pp. 233-244). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project.

Mehler, J. & Christophe, A. (2000). 'Acquisition of Language: Infant and Adult Data'. In M. Gazzaniga (ed.), The New Cognitive Neurosciences, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Piske, T., MacKay, I. R., & Flege, J. E. (2001). Factors affecting degree of foreign accent in an L2: A review. Journal of phonetics, 29(2), 191-215.

VanPatten, B., & Benati, A. G. (2015). Key Terms in Second Language Acquisition. Bloomsbury Publishing.

VanPatten, B., Smith, M., & Benati, A. G. (2020). Key Questions in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.

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Federico Piersigilli

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