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The role of transfer in determining the phonological core

Jenkings, J (2000) The phonology of English as an international language: new models, new norms, new goals
Betty Medina


Jenkings throughout this chapter is trying to identify a phonological core on which speakers rely on, how does the natural process of transfer occur, and its implications toward international intelligibility. Now lets try to understand the process of phonological transfer and its effects.

The complex process of L1 phonological transfer

Historically, L1 transfer was thought to involve interference of old L1 habits in the acquisition of new L2 habits. Remember Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (CAH)? If L1 is similar to L2 = simplicity in acquisition, but if L1 is different from L2 = difficulty in acquisition. CAH lost credibility among SLA researchers

However, it was welcomed back again as having a major role in adult L2 acquisition, but in a far more complex way. The complexity of phonological transfer comes from its interactions with a number of other processes and factors:

universal processes developmental processes stylistic and contextual factors habit formation and automaticity notions of ambiguity

Transfer plus universal processes

Earlier works by researchers such as Jakobson, Smith, and Stampe done in the 1960s and 1970s demonstrate how the nature of human language and human articulatory and perceptual systems sometimes work against the phonological acquisition of an L1. Further research has revealed the tendencies of these universal linguistic constraints operating in L2 acquisition similar to that of L1 acquisition.

Consonant deletion and epenthesis as an example:

an L1 child acquisition tendency to avoid consonant clusters. >crisp becomes /kp/ In fully developed L1 speech: >walked by becomes /w:k ba/ In L2 acquisition there is the same tendency for cluster simplification and epenthesis may occur: >An Arabic learner of English may pronounce film as /fl m/ because in their L1 there is a difficulty in pronouncing the cluster /lm/

Schwa paragoge and terminal devoicing

Schwa paragoge: the addition of schwa to word-final obstruents (plosives, fricatives, and affricates).
Mandarin permits only vowels and sonorant consonants (approximants, liquids, and nasals) in word final position. tag may be pronounced /tg /

Terminal devoicing: the loss of voice on certain word-final consonant sounds.

Terminal devoicing is motivated for grammars of a number of first languages such as German, Polish, and Russian.

These have been shown to be motivated by universal phonological constraints.

Terminal devoicing does not have to occur in a speakers L1 for it to occur in L2. It also occurs in the English of speakers of Cantonnese, Spanish, and Hungarian, for whom this is not a native-like process. What accounts for the apparent universal tendency for terminal devoicing?
Eckman, explains it through the notion of relative degree of difficulty and for this he uses the concept of typological markedness.

Typological markedness: A phenomenon A in some language is more marked relative to phenomenon B, if cross-linguistically the presence of A in a language necessarily implies the presence of B, but the presence of B does not necessarily imply the presence of A. For example, on terms of voicing contrasts, in a language like English where both voiced and voiceless consonants are allowed in word-final position, are also allowed in word-medial and word initial position. In a language like German, however, voiced consonants are not allowed in word-final position, but does allow them in word-medial and word-initial position.

Markedness Differential Hypothesis (MDH)

The principle of difficulty-related-to-markedness is summed up by Eckman in the Markedness Differential Hypothesis. The areas of difficulty that a language learner will have can be predicted on the basis of a systematic comparison of the grammars of the native language and the markedness relations stated in universal grammar. In other words the more marked the difference between the native language feature and the target language feature, the more difficult it would be to acquire.

MDH explains why German learners of English have a greater difficulty with the voicing of final voiced consonants than do English learners who have less considerable difficulty learning the devoicing of all final consonants. This theory may also help clarify the use of epenthesis by a native Spanish speaker learning English as we have seen before in class.


In pronunciation, L1 knowledge serves as a starting point for second language acquisition (SLA). Pronunciation has a stronger influence than grammar and lexis since we are able to apply our knowledge of the L1 phonological and phonetic inventory with greater ease. In contrast, grammar and lexis may differ greatly from one language to another.

L2 phonological features, even if they are different from L1, can be categorized within the L1 system and may be approximated to the L2. Therefore, Jenkings suggests that it is crucial to accept L1 phonological transfer as a universal. I agree with Jenkings in that getting rid of a learners pronunciation is not beneficial for the learner especially if the EIL intelligibility is not affected. Many times learners of a second language are discouraged because of their lack of sounding the same as teachers, but we can encourage learners by letting them know that it is not wrong to have an accent.

Transfer plus developmental processes

It is not always easy in making a distinction between developmental and the universal processes. For example, Jenkings mentions reports of L1 children terminal devoicing of fricatives. This may be because of both developmental as well as a universal processes.

Fricatives: Interdentals // and / /

In a study done with a 2 year old, Moscowitz suggests the problem with interdental fricatives are due to insufficient motor control. It is known that these sounds are mastered last and substituted frequently by English native speakers. Therefore, this may explain why L2 learners from all L1 backgrounds have difficulty with these sounds.

Are these items unteachable for L2 learners?

Jenkings points out that there is a difference from how L1 learners and L2 learners deal with difficulties in the language. For example an L1 child learner uses the native pre-language system, while a L2 adult learner will use his native language system. This means that some items will be hard to teach or as Jenkings puts it, unteachable, since they are unlikely to proceed to the developmental stage where items are fully acquired.

Ioup and Tamsomboons study (1987)

They examined the age differences in relation to second language acquisition, in correlation exclusively through acquisition tone. Thai learners were asked to imitate sentences by humming the intonation contour and ignoring segmental information. The results show tone is one of the earliest aspect of Thai to be acquired by children and one of the latest acquired by adults. What causes these differences?

Cognitive processes involved

Ioup and Tansomboom argue that the differences arise from the cognitive processes involved. Adults already possessing tone and all aspects of second language system use the left hemisphere, and children who have yet to develop the cognitive framework to process linguistic data, use the right hemisphere. For example, when humming was divorced from other aspects of the linguistic system adults performed the task easily.

Native-like accent?

Pitch movement is known as a difficult task to teach among adult L2 learners. Jenkings suggests that non-pedagogic exposure should be encouraged by teachers and may be the best resource an L2 adult learner can rely on. According to Jenkings, it may be a waste of time trying to teach these features of language I think that teachers should focus on other linguistic features which may affect EIL intelligibility. Much exposure is needed to attain a native-like accent and as we have seen, cognitive processes may make it unattainable for an adult L2 learner.

Transfer process plus stylistic and contextual factors

Style refers to the degree of formality. According to Jenkings, phonological transfer decreases in formal speech contexts and increases in informal ones. Schmidt studied Arabic speakers of English and found the subjects pronunciation underwent variation during colloquial speech and not formal speech. This may happen because in formal contexts there is less opportunity of repetition or clarification and greater likelihood of embarrassment resulting from unintelligibility. Research shows that the degree of attention to speech depends on the formality of the task.

Linguistic context also interacts with phonological transfer. Some environments have a facilitating effect,increasing the number of target-like variants, while other environments seem to be debilitating, increasing the number of non-target-like variants. In terms of teaching, the author suggest that when a target item is more difficult and therefore susceptible to transfer because of the phonological context it is in, it is better to focus on the problematic phonological context rather than the difficult item by itself.

Habit formation and automaticity

The production of speed sounds is an automatized motor skill, unlike that of lexis and syntax. Consequently, it is difficult to de-automatize L1 speech habits in L2. For example, advanced Danish English learners still use voiced stop consonants in medial position in words like bitter, rapid, and liter, in unattended speech. This results from the Danish phonological plan, using the articulation of word-medial stop consonants. Once again the author suggests that unless the international intelligibility is threatened, modifying the phonological habits of a lifetime is not encouraged.

Cognitive factors: perceptions of L1-L2 similarity

If there are similarities between L1 and L2 the early stages of language acquisition are facilitated. This is because learners rely more heavily on previous cognitive experiences to process new language information. Selinker, believes that interlingual identifications is the number one SLA strategy. Interlingual identification occurs when a learner perceives resemblances across certain features of the L1 and L2 and this in turn influences a learner in the production of an L2 feature the same way it is produced in the L1.

However, L1-L2 similarity no longer is equated with ease of acquisition and difference with difficulty. On the contrary, target-like production seems to be affected by fossilization, which occurs because of the L1-L2 similarity judgments. The problem is that categorical sound perception is not necessarily equal to allophonic equivalence.

Studies have demonstrated that new sounds are acquired more accurately than those that were similar to their L1. Researchers describe it as the limiting effect of previous phonetic experience. An example: A Thai student pronouncing the word philosophy as [kwelasokwi] because [kw] and [f] are variants of the same phoneme in the Thai language.

Implications for EIL intelligibility

The author states that more phonetic production classwork is needed Also, that their is a greater need for the pedagogic distinction between the ways learners are encouraged to make use of their L1 knowledge in production and reception. I agree with Jenkings, in that teachers should focus on how knowledge of the L1 pronunciation system can help learners understand what is heard in the L2. Focusing on pronunciation universals, L1-L2 similarities and exposure to a wide range of L2 English accents can be great tools inside the classroom.

Notions of ambiguity

There have been several studies done on the notion of ambiguity. In these studies subjects from several L1 backgrounds employed phonological adjustments motivated by the reduction of ambiguity. Weinberger argues that all natural languages contain a constrain against ambiguity. Further studies demonstrate that speakers concerned with phonological intelligibility prefer using strategies of addition instead of deletion.


Phonological transfer occurs through various complex processes and can be of great benefit to learners. We cannot expect learners to easily give up their L1 accents and variants When items are difficult for universal or developmental reasons, it should be examined if such items would obstruct EIL intelligibility. Language transfer process plays an important role in interlanguage phonology. Finally, our purpose as teachers is to help our students communicate in an L2 language. Therefore, native-like accent should not be our goal.