22nd Mar 2010Posted in: Linguistics, Research 0
The Effects of Occurrence Frequency of Phonemes on Second Language Acquisition


It is widely known that in the course of second language acquisition (SLA), a learner’s knowledge of the second language (L2) is often influenced by his first language (L1). This statement applies to the different aspects of language learning, from phonetics to morphology, from syntax to pragmatics. The present study is interested in looking at how L1 influences a learner’s L2 pronunciation.

Different languages select different sets of phonemes from the stock of possible sounds human can articulate. As a result, a learner in SLA would often encounter sound segments in L2 which his L1 does not make use of. In such a case, the learner would tend to replace these unfamiliar sounds with the ones available in his L1. What is interesting about this process is how we select replacements for these foreign sounds. It is obvious enough that we do not select replacements randomly, otherwise we could not possibly be able to tell one’s mother tongue simply by the accent of his L2. Instead, it is reasonable to assume that we select replacements as similar as possible to the replaced sounds. The question in hand, then, becomes how we measure the similarity of sounds.

As learning how to pronounce a sound segment is basically learning how to make a certain posture with the articulators, it follows that the differences in different sound segments, or the similarity among them, lie in their articulatory features.

On the other hand, among the sounds available in the selected set of a language, or the phonemic stock of it, some occur more often than the others, while some occur so infrequently that their phonemic status may be doubtful. As replacement is a process of replacing foreign sounds with familiar sounds, it is thus natural to ask how large the effect of the occurrence frequency of the phonemes on the process of replacement is. In other words, is a similar but less frequent sound or a dissimilar but more frequent sound more likely to be selected as a replacement?

In order to suggest an answer to the above question, the present study is going to compare the occurrence frequency of phonemes in five languages, namely Cantonese, Mandarin, Italian, German and American English, and study the common replacements in them.

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