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On some segmental and prosodic intricacies of `foreign accent'

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Napoleon Katsos.

Acquisition of the phonology of a second language is a challenging enterprise, not only for the learner, but also for theories of acquisition and for phonological theories. In general, a late learner, that is, somebody who begins learning a second language as an adult will never reach a ultimate state, in which s/he will be perceived as a native speaker, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Many theories and models try to understand the causes of a “foreign accent” and still many try to help overcome it with several types of methods. This talk is not a pedagogical one, so that I will concentrate on analyzing areas in which a “foreign accent” emerges and reasons for its appearance.

In what areas does a “foreign accent” emerge? One of the first well-known answers to this question was Contrastive Analysis (CA), which was a mechanistic and thus simplistic proposal based on the comparison of the two phonological systems—that of L1 and L2: identical (or similar) phonemes should not cause any difficulties, but different phonemes should be difficult to acquire. However, according to the Speech Learning Model (SLM), those sounds that are similar, but not identical, in the L1 and L2 pose the most problems. The predictive power of CA was limited, and other factors were sought, as e.g. markedness relations between the L1 and L2 phonemes and their distributional properties, as proposed in the Markedness Differential Hypothesis (MDH) and the Structural Conformity Hypothesis (SCH). New insights came into the analyses as the MDH and the SCH proposals were considered within the Principles and Parameters (P&P) paradigm, in which the question was raised as to the accessibility of UG by L2 learners and the parametric differences between L1 and L2. Optimality Theory (OT) in turn has contributed to the question of the role of markedness in L2 acquisition. However, all theories have concentrated on segmental phenomena, when in fact suprasegmental, i.e. prosodic differences between L1 and L2 may also contribute essentially to a “foreign accent”.

What are thus the reasons of a “foreign accent”? Perception, age, markedness are possible factors, besides alleged motivation, input frequency, etc. Perception may explain some of the shortcomings, but not all. The question of age is still a puzzling one: is there a critical age for language acquisition? Or are there several critical ages depending on the linguistic module to be acquired? Or is the critical or sensitive age rather like a continuum, which for phonology begins to fade extremely soon? As far as markedness is concerned, OT has put it in the center of research through the notion of the “emergence of the unmarked”, but the function of markedness is better defined for L1 than for L2. Only a global analysis that goes beyond segments and considers suprasegmentals can begin to give an answer to some long-standing issues. The talk will illustrate theories and issues by means of relevant examples of L2 acquisition.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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