Chapter 12: Adult Language Learning
If your first language is a spoken language, you’ve had a lot of practice at articulating the speech sounds in your phonetic inventory: the set of segments that are present in the grammar. For example, most varieties of English have somewhere around 25 consonants and a dozen or so vowels. That’s a lot of vowels, compared to many other languages, so learning to articulate English vowels can be particularly challenging for adult learners of English.
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 Türkiye. Adyghe has only three vowels, but (depending on the dialect), between 50 and 60 consonants, including 18 different plosives, ten affricates, and 24 fricatives!
If the language you’re learning includes segments you haven’t yet learned to articulate, you might make a substitution with a segment from the phonetic inventory of your L1. 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].
Another challenge for adult learners comes from your L1 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. The phonetic inventory of Vietnamese also includes the velar nasal, but it’s grammatical in onset position, like in the very common surname Nguyen [ŋwɪn] and the word nghe [ŋɛ] which means listen.
Phonotactics also constrain the possible syllable structures in a grammar. In Chapter 3 we learned that English can have a whole lot of consonants in syllable onsets and in syllable codas – consider the word strengths, [strɛŋkθs] which has three consonants in the onset and four in the coda! English also allows much simpler syllables, like nice [naɪs], or odd [ɑd], and even syllables with nothing in the onset or coda, like eye [aɪ].
But some languages have much tighter phonotactic constraints on their syllable structure. When you’re learning a later language, you often adapt the shape of the words to fit the phonotactics of your L1. Likewise, when a language borrows words from another language, the loanword gets adapted.
A famous example comes from Hawaiian, which has only two possible syllable structures: a syllable can have either one or zero consonants in its onset, no coda consonants and no consonant clusters. So when Hawaiian borrows the two-syllable English word Christmas [krɪs.məs], there’s a lot of adaptation to do.
The only position a consonant can occupy is the onset, and onsets can’t have more than one consonant. So the [krɪ] from English becomes [kali] with the [l] substituting for English [r] and [i] for English [ɪ]. Then the [s] from the coda of [krɪs] gets a substitution and its own syllable to become [ki]. The [s] from the coda of the second English syllable [məs] becomes another onset, and result is that the Hawaiian adaptation of the English word Christmas is [kalikimaka].
Besides loanwords, English speakers also tend to adapt proper names to conform to English phonotactics. For example, when English speakers are talking about visiting the Polish city of Gdańsk [ɡdaj̃sk], they usually epenthesize an extra [ə] between the first two consonants, because [ɡd] isn’t a grammatical onset in English. Or when English borrows the German name Pfeiffer [pfaɪfɐ], the plosive [p] at the beginning gets deleted because [pf] isn’t a possible onset.