5.3 Adults Learning L2 Phonotactics

In addition to the phonemic contrasts in an L2, the phonetic inventory and the phonotactic constraints of an L2 can also be challenging for adult language learners, because of the influence of their L1 grammar.

Check Yourself

Video Script

We saw in the previous section that it can be challenging for an adult to learn the phonemic contrasts in a second (or third or fourth) language, because the grammar of your L1 shapes your perception in a language that learn later. The phonemic contrasts aren’t the only thing that make language learning challenging for adults. The phonetic inventory and phonotactic constraints are parts of the mental grammar that also pose a challenge.

The phonetic inventory is simply the set of segments that are present in the grammar. You’ve become pretty good at transcribing English, which (depending on your variety) has around 25 consonants and 14 vowels. Compared to many other languages, that’s a lot of vowels, so the vowels can be particularly tricky for English learners. In contrast, Hawaiian, the Indigenous language spoken in the Hawaiian islands, has only eight consonants and five vowels. And on the other end of the spectrum is Adyghe, one of the Circassian languages spoken in Russia and Turkey. Adyghe has only three vowels, but (depending on the dialect), between 50 and 50 consonants, including 18 different stops, ten affricates, and 24 fricatives!

If the language you’re learning includes segments you haven’t yet learned to produce, you’re likely to make a substitution with a segment you do have in your language. If you have a name that isn’t English, you’ve probably had the experience of English-speakers making substitutions in your name. For example, the Hebrew name Baruch [baɾʊx] ends with a velar fricative [x], but English speakers often pronounce it with a velar stop instead [baɹuk]. Likewise, the Tamil name Kavitha [kavit̪a] has a dental stop in the onset of the last syllable, which English speakers often turn into a flap [kəviɾʌ] or into a dental fricative [kəviθʌ].

The other challenge for learning an L2 is the phonotactics. Phonotactic constraints are restrictions in the mental grammar on what sounds can appear in what positions, and what syllable structures are possible. For example, the velar nasal [ŋ] is part of the phonetic inventory of English, but it never appears in the onset of a word, only in coda position, like in lung, tank, and singer. Vietnamese also has the velar nasal in its phonetic inventory, but it allows this segment in onset position, like in the very common surname Nguyen and the word nghe, which means listen.

Phonotactics also constrain the possible syllable structures in a grammar. In Chapter 3 we saw that English can have a whole lot of consonants in coda position, and can also have a lot of consonants in syllable onsets. So a word like strengths has three consonants in the onset and four in the coda! English also allows much simpler syllables, like nice, or odd, and even syllables with nothing in the onset or coda, like eye.

But some languages have much tighter phonotactic constraints on their syllable structure. When you’re speaking an L2, you often adapt the shape of the words to fit the phonotactics of the grammar of your L1. Likewise, when a language borrows words from another language, the loanword gets adapted.

A famous example comes from Hawaiian. Remember we saw above that Hawaiian has only eight consonants and five vowels in its phonetic inventory. And there are only two possible syllable structures: either a syllable can have one consonant in its onset, or no consonant. There are no coda consonants in Hawaiian, and no consonant clusters. So when Hawaiian borrows the English word Christmas, there’s a lot of adaptation to do. Those five consonants in English can fit into two syllables: two in the onset of the first syllable and one in the coda, then one each in the onset and coda of the second syllable.

But in Hawaiian, the only position a consonant can go is in the onset, and then only one at a time. So this loanword in Hawaiian has five syllables. [kɹɪ] becomes [kali] (with the [l] substituting for English [ɹ]). Then the [s] from the coda of the first syllable gets a substitution and its own syllable, and the two consonants from the second syllable in English get their own syllables each in Hawaiian. So the Hawaiian adaptation of the English word Christmas is [kalikimaka].

Loanwords are a common place to observe articulatory processes. For example, when English speakers are talking about skiing in Gdansk, they usually epenthesize an extra schwa between the first two consonants, because [gd] isn’t a possible onset in English. Or when English borrows the German name Pfeiffer, the stop at the beginning gets deleted because [pf] isn’t a possible onset.

All of these adaptations are a normal part of learning an L2, and they result from the fact that our mind applies the grammatical structures and constraints of our L1 grammar to our L2.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Essentials of Linguistics Copyright © 2018 by Catherine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book