How do native Polish speakers identify and classify the British English monophthongs?


There exists a significant amount of research pertaining to second-language (L2) learner’s vowel perception and the influences of their native (L1) language (Flege, 2002; Flege, Munro, & MacKay, 1995; Munro, Flege, & 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 & 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 & MacKay, 2004 cited in Mayr & Escudero, 2010: 280).

The perceptual assimilation model (PAM) (Best, 1994, 1995; Best & Tyler, 2007 cited in Bundgaard-Nielsen et al. 2010; Mayr & Escudero, 2010: 280) states that L1 acquisition is the modification of the perceptual systems of those in L1 that are significant. PAM-2 (Best & 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 & 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 & Escudero, 2010: 280). These variables include: age of onset of acquisition; length of residence (Flege, Birdsong, Bialystok, Mack, Sung and Tsukada, 2006; MacKay, Flege and Imai, 2006; MacKay and Flege, 2001 cited in Mayr & Escudero, 2010: 279); language use, motivation; and psychological factors (Flege, Yeni-Komshian and Liu, 1999; Moyer, 1999, 2004; Cebrian, 2006 cited in Mayr & Escudero, 2010: 279).

Some learners discriminate well between certain vowels, while others have difficulties with at least one or more L2 vowels. The perception of L2 vowels is influenced by the number of vowels in the learner’s L1 inventory. More specifically, if the L1 vowel inventory is smaller than a richer L2 vowel inventory, single category assimilation occurs and learners experience difficulties as new learning needs to occur. Furthermore, when the L1 vowel inventory is similar to L2 vowel inventory, slight difficulty is experienced as only some new learning is required (Escudero & Chladkova, 2010). Moreover, when the L1 vowel category inventory is richer than the L2 vowel inventory, unlearning needs to occur which may produce some difficulty that needs to be further researched (Escudero & Chladkova, 2010).

Listeners’ Language

The listeners’ native language for this L2 listening task is Polish. Concisely, Polish is a West Slavonic language used in Poland. It contains a rich and heavy-cluster consonant system and a simple six vowel system. The lax vowel system consists of three high vowels [/i/-/i/-/u/] and three low vowels [/e/-/a/-/o/] (Jazeem, 2003: 1-3), as shown in Figure 1, where English monophthongs are shown for contrast. Polish is considered as a transparent language where the relationship between graphemes and phonemes is almost one-to-one, as it is in Spanish (Escudero & Wanrooij, 2010: 349). Vowel duration is not a contrastive feature in Polish.

There exists limited research on the perception of British English monophthongs by Polish speakers. Bogacka (2004) has conducted a perception experiment on /i/-/ɪ/ and /u/-/ʊ/ monophthong contrasts in 27 Polish high-school speakers. She concluded that they were able to distinguish correctly between /i/ and /ɪ/ contrasts, but were unable to distinguish /u/ and /ʊ/ contrasts due to orthographic interference and L1 reading habits. Bogacka (2004) also found that Polish speakers used spectral cues in the /i/-/ɪ/ contrast, and temporal cues in the /u/-/ʊ/ contrast.


The motivation of this study is to bridge the existing gap in research on the perception of English monophthongs by Polish speakers. Furthermore, as differences between Polish and English vowels exist in terms of total numbers and articulation differences, findings may show a complex language perception pattern that includes a combination of single and multiple category assimilations, as stated in Escudero’s (2005) Second language linguistic perception (L2LP) model.  Moreover, results may include other L1 perceptual interferences that impede L2 acquisition and need further addressing. The results of this L2 task can provide salient information for ESL designers and teachers whose target audiences are native Polish speakers or other languages with characteristics similar to the Polish language.

Research Question

The purpose of this study is to investigate how native Polish speakers perceive English monophthongs, and whether they can hear the differences between the eleven British monophthongs, and classify them correctly.

Present Study


Eleven British English (/i/-/ɪ/-/ε/-/æ/-/ɑ/-/ɒ/-/u/-/ɔ/-/ʊ/-/ʌ/-/ɜ/) are used in this L2 listening task. The monophthongs are synthesized by the Pratt software to simulate height and backness auditory characteristics of the English vowels, and are of equal length (Escudero & Chladkova, 2010). These monophthongs are repeated ten time for a total of one hundred and ten tokens.


Three native Polish speakers (2 females and 1 male) will participate in the experiment which will take place in a quiet room. All speakers migrated to Australia in their mid 30’s, and have been in Australia for longer than 10 years. They have never taken English classes or have been exposed to English prior to arrival in Australia. None of the listeners had previously lived in countries where British or American dialects are used, and only been exposed to British English dialects in Australia via standard media. All listeners had reported difficulty with English during their initial stages of acquisition and still did not feel confident with their level of English. For a control group, one Australian native speaker will be included in the experiment to compare results to the Polish speakers.


Using a standard computer and headphones, listeners are asked to identify incoming auditory stimuli and classify them according to twelve orthographically represented English words shown on the screen (eat, it, pull, pool, hair, bed, bird, ball, had, hot, had and hut). The listeners will be familiarised with the meaning of these words, and instructed to select one category, even when uncertain. They can proceed at own pace, and the duration of the experiment is expected to be less than 20 minutes. Their responses are collected by the Praat software for further analysis.

Predicted Results.

It is predicted that Polish speakers will only differentiate between some of the English monophthongs and will identify some monophthongs correctly, as stated in PAM, PAM-L2, L2LP, and Bogacka (2004).  Furthermore, as the Polish monophthongs inventory is smaller than that of English, it is further predicted that multiple and single category assimilation will occur, in line with Escudero & Chladkova (2010).  More specifically, the majority of the listeners may perceive the /i/-/ɪ/ contrast correctly, the /u/-/ʊ/ contrast may be perceived as the single /u/, due to L1 language transparency/reading habits, in line with Bogacka (2004: 5-6),  and Escudero & Chladkova, (2010).  The /æ/-/ɑ/-/ɒ/ vowels may be perceived as a single /ɑ/ vowel, and /æ/ may be perceived as either /ɑ/ or /ε/, as Fig 1 shows /æ/ is located between to the Polish /e/ and/ a/ causing perception difficulties predicted by the SLM. The /ε/ and /ɔ/ monophthongs may be perceived as /e/ and /ɑ/, in line with the second language linguistic perception (L2LP) model in Escudero & Chladkova (2010) and due to L1 reading habits/language transparency. It is further predicted that L1 reading habits/language transparency/orthographic interference may affect the participants responses for the following monophthongs /i/, /ʊ/, /ɜ/, and /ɔ/. The table 1 below shows predicted responses for majority of listeners.

These findings will answer the research question by demonstrating how Polish speakers identify and contrast English monophthongs.

Table 1. * Responses due to L1 reading habits/orthographic interference/L1 language transparency.

Copyright Robert Mijas 2012.


Bogacka, A. (2004). On the perception of English vowels by Polish learners of English. Poznań, Poland: Adam Mickiewich University.

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Escudero, P. & Chladkova, K. (2010). Spanish listeners’ perception of American and Southern British English vowels. EL254 J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 128_5.

Escudero, P. & Wanrooij, K. (2010). The effect of L1 orthography on non-native vowel perceptionLanguage and Speech, 53(3), 343–365.

Escudero, P. & Williams, D. (2011). Perceptual assimilation of Dutch vowels by Peruvian Spanish listeners.  J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 129 (1).

Jaseem, W. (2003). Polish. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 33/1.

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.

Rubach, J. (2006). Polish: phonology

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