Meister, Lya
January 2009
Eesti Rakenduslingvistika Ãœhingu Aastaraamat;2009, Vol. 5, p143
Academic Journal
Adult second language (L2) learners often face difficulties in the pronunciation and perception of L2 speech segments. It is mainly due to the so-called phonological deafness towards certain phonetic contrasts of L2, which develops after the acquisition of a child's first language (L1) phonetic inventory during its early years of life. The ability to perceive and distinguish L2 sounds depends on the phonetic distance between similar segments in L1 and L2. The aim of the study is to test the perception of Estonian vowel categories by L2 learners of Estonian whose L1 is Russian. Estonian vowel system includes nine vowels whereas Russian has only six. Five of the Estonian vowels, /i/, /e/, /u/, /o/ and /a/, have their counterparts in Russian; the new vowel categories are /ü/, /ö/, /ä/, and partly /õ/. Four hypotheses were posed: 1. The Estonian vowels /i/, /e/, /u/ and /o/ will assimilate well with their Russian counterparts as their phonetic distance is close. 2. The Estonian /a/ and /ä/ will assimilate with the corresponding allophones in Russian. 3. The Estonian /ü/, /ö/ and /õ/ will all partly assimilate with the Russian /õ/; due to their close phonetic distance the ability of discrimination of these three categories is poor. 4. The boundaries of well-established vowel categories are similar for both L1 and L2 subjects, the boundaries of new vowel categories, if not acquired yet, are rather fuzzy. For the perceptual experiments four-formant vowel stimuli were synthesized including nine Estonian prototype vowels and intermediate steps (16 to 18 steps) between the prototypes. The stimuli set covered 14 vowel-pairs (vowel category boundaries); the duration of a single stimulus was 160 ms, the stimuli were played three times in random order, while the listeners had to answer the question "Did you hear vowel X or vowel Y?" by clicking the corresponding character on a computer screen. Five (2 male, 3 female) native Estonian subjects and nine (4 male, 5 female) non-native (Russian as L1) ones were involved in the experiment. All L2 subjects had low or mid-level foreign accent, their knowledge of Estonian was reported from average to high. Based on the perception results the location and the width of the vowel category boundaries were found for the L1 and the L2 subjects. The results of the perception tests confirm our hypotheses: L2 subjects perceive Estonian vowels /i/, /e/, /u/, /o/, /a/ and /ä/ similarly as L1 subjects - just minor differences in the location and width of the vowel boundaries were found; whereas the boundaries of new vowel categories /ü/, /ö/ and /õ/ deviate significantly in L2 subjects from those of L1 subjects. The findings presented in the paper are in good harmony with accent theories such as Perceptual Assimilation Model (PAM) (Best 1994) and Speech Learning Model (SLM) (Flege 1995).


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