The importance on how non-native English speakers identify English vowels

There exists a significant amount of research pertaining to the second-language (L2) learner’s vowel perception and the influences of the native (L1) language (Flege, 2002; Flege, Munro, and MacKay, 1995; Munro, Flege, and MacKay, 1996 cited in Bundgaard-Nielsen et al., 2010).

The contrastive analysis hypothesis (CAH) states that dissimilarities between L2 and L1 produce most problems in acquisition while similarities produce little difficulty (Lado, 1957 cited in Mayr and Escudero, 2010: 280).

The speech learning model (SLM) proposes the opposite of CAH, that is, similarities between L1 and L2 produce most problems in acquisition, while dissimilarities produce least problems (Flege, 1995, 2002, 2003 and Flege and MacKay, 2004 cited in Mayr and Escudero, 2010: 280).

The perceptual assimilation model (PAM) (Best, 1994, 1995; Best and Tyler, 2007 cited in Bundgaard-Nielsen et al., 2010; Mayr and Escudero, 2010: 280) states that L1 acquisition is the modification of the perceptual systems of those in L1 that are significant.

PAM-2 (Best and Tyler, 2007 cited in Bundgaard-Nielsen et al., 2010: 53) assumes that perceptual learning is possible throughout the entire life and is influenced by individual’s complete language learning history and improves with L2 proficiency (Flege et al., 1995; Ingham and Park, 1997; Tsukada et al., 2005 cited in Bundgaard-Nielsen et al., 2010: 53-54).

Learners possess distinct development/learning paths that vary according to both linguistic and non-linguistic variables (Mayr and Escudero, 2010: 280). Some learners discriminate well between certain vowels, while others have difficulties with at least one or more L2 vowels. The perception of L2 vowels, the levels of difficulty, and the way vowels are categorized are influenced by the number of vowels in the learner’s L1 inventory (Escudero and Chladkova, 2010; Bundgaard-Nielsen et al., 2010).

More specifically, if the L1 vowel inventory is smaller than a richer L2 vowel inventory, single category assimilation occurs and it is predicted that learners experience significant difficulties as it entails new learning. Furthermore, when the L1 vowel inventory is similar to the L2 vowel inventory, slight difficulty is predicted as some new learning is required. Moreover, when the L1 vowel category inventory is richer than the L2 vowel inventory, unlearning occurs which may produce levels of difficulty that need to be further researched (Escudero and Chladkova, 2010).

Studies that investigate how native speakers of other languages perceive the entire set of English monophthongs, and whether they can hear and classify the differences between monophthongs provide important information for ESL designers and teachers in terms of the levels and types of difficulty experienced by learners.

Copyright Robert Mijas 2012


Bundgaard-Nielsen, R. L., Best, C. T., & Tyler, M. D. (2011). Vocabulary size matters: The assimilation of L2 Australian English vowels to L1 Japanese vowel categories. Applied Psycholinguistics, 32, 1: 51-67.

Escudero, P. & Chladkova, K. (2010). Spanish listeners’ perception of American and Southern British English vowels. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 128, 5: EL254-EL260.

Mayr, R., & Escudero, P. (2010). Explaining individual differences in L2 vowel perception: Rounded vowels in English learners of German. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 13, 3: 279-297.

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