Review: Acquiring a Non-Native Phonology

[ Via LINGUIST List, though for some reason tucked under the incorrect heading Review: Language Acquisition: Sorace et al. (2006) ]

Announced at

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 participants.


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, 221-242.

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, 43-57.


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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