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date: 22 March 2018

Second Language Phonetics

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

The study of second language phonetics is concerned with three broad and overlapping research areas: the characteristics of second language speech production and perception, the consequences of perceiving and producing nonnative speech sounds with a foreign accent, and the causes and factors that shape second language phonetics. Second language learners and bilinguals typically produce and perceive the sounds of a nonnative language in ways that are different from native speakers. These deviations from native norms can be attributed largely, but not exclusively, to the phonetic system of the native language. Non-native-like speech perception and production may have both social consequences (e.g., misjudgment of speaker mood) and linguistic-communicative consequences (e.g., reduced intelligibility). Research on second language phonetics over the past ca. 30 years has resulted in a fairly good understanding of causes of nonnative speech production and perception, and these insights have to a large extent been driven by tests of the predictions of models of second language speech learning and of cross-language speech perception. It is now generally accepted that the characteristics of second language speech are predominantly due to how second language learners map the sounds of the nonnative to the native language. This mapping cannot be predicted from theoretical or acoustic comparisons of the sound systems of the languages involved, but has to be determined empirically through tests of perceptual assimilation. The most influential learner factors that shape how a second language is perceived and produced are the age of learning, and the amount and quality of exposure to the second language. A very important and far-reaching finding from research on second language phonetics is that age effects are not due to neurological maturation that could result in the attrition of phonetic learning ability, but to the way phonetic categories develop as a function of experience with surrounding sound systems.