Abstraction of phonological representations in adult nonnative speakers

Alia Lancaster, Kira Gor

Abstract


Perception of nonnative contrasts by adult second language (L2) learners is affected by native language phonology. The current study contrasted predictions from two models of L2 phonological acquisition that focus on different representational levels as the origin of native language transfer: the abstract categorization level from the Perceptual Assimilation Model for L2 learners (PAM-L2; Best & Tyler, 2007) and the phonetic level from the Automatic Selective Perception model (ASP; Strange, 2011). The target phonemes were pairs of Arabic consonants that were equally similar on the abstract categorization level but unequally similar on the phonetic level—voiced and voiceless pharyngeal fricatives /ʕ/, /ħ/ and uvular fricatives /χ/, /ʁ/. Twenty intermediate-level English-speaking Arabic L2 learners and 10 Arabic native speakers (NS) completed auditory identification and discrimination tasks. We first conducted a discriminant analysis (DA) to quantify ASP predictions based on phonetic variables. L2 learners were generally more accurate when perceiving the pharyngeal consonants compared to the uvulars and when perceiving the voiced phonemes compared to the voiceless. These findings, and L2 learners’ perceptual variation across contexts, predicted by the DA, suggest that L2 speakers were able to track phonetic cues during L2 perception and thus favor the ASP. These results support the interpretation that L2 learners attend to the phonetic detail in nonnative segments; however, they do not build nativelike phonological representations for the segments with weaker phonetic cues. This ability to process low-level phonetic cues opens the possibility for learners to create more robust phonological representations.


Keywords


L2 acquisition; phonological contrasts; perception; nonnative phonology; phonetic cues

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.3765/plsa.v1i0.3725

Copyright (c) 2016 Alia Lancaster, Kira Gor

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