How to lessen the negative interference of our learners’ mother tongue on their target language pronunciation Phonology


This article suggests teaching strategies based on sensory-motor research findings on bilingual speech aimed at reducing the impact of negative first language transfer on L2 target language speech. I will start by examining the process involved in language transfer and its consequence on the acquisition of L2 pronunciation in light of the latest recent research evidence. I shall then proceed to discuss the implications for the foreign language classroom.

Language Transfer

As we all know, our first language (or any other language we know for that matter) can cause interference in the process of acquiring a new one. We refer to this phenomenon as language transfer. Language transfer can be positive (i.e. facilitating learning or performance) or negative (i.e. impeding learning or performance) depending on the similarity/distance between the pre-existing language and the new language one is learning.

For instance, an English native speaker will experience negative transfer when it comes to pronouncing ‘P’ in Spanish ( negative transfer), because in this language the ‘p’ sound is a non-aspirated labial sound with a short onset time, whereas in English it is an aspirated sound with a relatively long onset time. On the other hand, a native speaker of Italian will have no problem with that sound as in his/her language it is pronounced in exactly the same way as it is in Spanish (positive transfer)

The main cognitive cause of Language Transfer is that when we learn a new language our brain uses our default language(s) – more than often our first language – as the starting point for the hypotheses we formulate to make sense of that language and/or as a communicative strategy to fill in any communicative gaps. In the specifics of foreign language pronunciation L2-learners transfer refers to the L2-learners’ application of their L1-phonological categories to decode and represent the foreign language sound system. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that their motor commands (their control over larynx, phrarynx and articulators) have been conditioned by years and years of first language pronunciation. Hence, especially at the early stages, the ‘phonological distance’ (differences in pronunciation) between two languages will play a very important role in determining the accuracy of L2- learner pronunciation.

Negative transfer is more likely to cause error at pronunciation level, when speech occurs in contexts that are difficult to monitor or which require a greater mastery of motor skills. So, for instance, a beginner foreign language learner talking spontaneously in the context of uncontrolled communicative practice will have less time to monitor pronunciation because his/her Working Memory is focused on higher metacomponents such as meaning and grammar; in this kind of context, the target language sounds that s/he finds problematic will be seriously affected by the lack of monitoring. On the other hand, the pronunciation of those problematic sounds is usually much more accurate when they are uttered in isolation, as discrete items – just like a toddler’s blabbing – due to the absence of articulatory interference from the preceding and following sounds in the word/surrounding words and ease of monitoring.

Another way in which L1-transfer affects pronunciation pertains to the fact that skilled L1-readers are very familiar with the written form of their native language, and automatically decode every grapheme (i.e. letter or cluster of letters) they read by producing a phonological representation of the sound (Snow,2002). This means that, when a learner reads a foreign language word its Working Memory will automatically match that sound with a first language phonological representation (i.e. will pronounce it the first language way). Thus, even if that learner reads a given word aloud following the teacher’s rendition of it, the L1 phonological representation of that word in the learner’s Working Memory will cause interference, with negative consequences for learning.

Another less recent finding (Neufeld, 1979) suggests that second language learners’ pronunciation might benefit from a mute period – a period of intense auditory exposure to L2 before attempting to produce the sounds. In Neufeld (1979) students were trained on pronunciation of sounds from Inuktitut, a language to which they had not been exposed previously. The learning process involved intensive listening to the language, with no attempt at producing the sounds. They were later instructed to produce the sounds and their attempts were rated as being mostly native-like. Neufeld claimed that the silent period at the beginning helped the students to accurately produce the language later. Removing students’ own attempts allowed perception to remain more plastic, such that the L2 acoustic template is heard accurately before erroneous phonetic utterances in L2 become fossilised. Producing the sound too early, and therefore incorrectly, would have influenced this acoustic template and thus hindered their production.

A mute period may prove beneficial in enabling the learner to hear (and thus produce) subtly different phonetic features, new phoneme distinctions and unfamiliar sequences of stress patterns. One possibility is that an artificially induced mute period may protect the learner from using first language phonological categories to represent the L2 system, thus enabling higher levels of production performance and avoiding L1 transfer or interference.

The threats posed by L1- language transfer to the correct uptake of  L2- pronunciation at the earlier stages of language acquisition are worrying only if we are aiming at 100 % accuracy due to the risk of fossilization, a phenomenon which, as explained in a previous post refers to the automatisation – often impervious to correction – of L2 learner errors. In most L2- classroom settings, unless we are training future international spies, we will be mostly aiming at clear and intelligible pronunciation with the majority of our learners and near-native accent only with a few talented ones.

How can we reduce the negative impact of L2-transfer on pronunciation?

Firstly, in order to avoid interference from a grapheme’s L1 phonological encoding (see the point made five paragraphs ago) on first introducing a new word it would be preferable not to expose the learners to its written form – this would avoid automated representation of the native phonological representation in Working Memory. In other words, it is better to present it orally, first in association with an image and, after some listening practice, to show it in its written form.

Secondly, L2 learners should be exposed to as much listening as possible in the context of a mute period before engaging in oral activities. Realistically speaking, in a typical state school classroom setting the pre-communicative mute period cannot be that long; but the most important lesson to be learnt from Neufeld’s (1979) research is that students should not be thrown into unstructured communicative practice straight away after presenting the target lexical items. The listening activities the students should be engaged in during this mute period should not only include test-like listening comprehension activities in the traditional sense: e.g. question and answer or true or false which focus solely on meaning. They should also include bottom-up processing activities that focus students on pronunciation and intonation, which involve matching words to sounds,  such as jigsaw listening, gap-fills with options to choose from or , at the basic level, circling a word or phrase from a choice of three or four options.

Thirdly, the observation that students seem to perform challenging L2 phonemes (sounds) more effectively when pronounced in isolation would seem to suggest – according to Simmonds, Wise and Leech (2011) that a babbling phase in which students imitate the target speech sounds in isolation might also improve non-native pronunciation. This can be done at the beginning of a lesson as a warm-up activity – I have done it quite often and it can be fun, depending on how you pitch it to the student and how you conduct it. Or, it can be set a homework activity to be carried out at home for a few minutes, recorded and sent to the teacher for feedback (were the  target sounds performed correctly? What could be done to improve them, etc.)

Finally, students need lots of practice in the context of structured and unstructured communicative activities. Such activities should, in my view, be staged after:

(a) effective modelling of the correct pronunciation;

(b) the mute listening period discussed above;

(c) extensive vocabulary practice through plenty of deep processing learning activities (e.g. the work-outs found on;

(d) Structured oral activities (e.g. find someone who; structured surveys; role-plays with prompts; timed oral translations) preceded by sufficient preparation time

(e) Less structured oral activities (at a later stage) in which students, through interviews, simulations, improvised role-plays, etc. converse freely about the topic-in-hand.

Traditional pronunciation drills (audiolingual style), minimal pairs and tongue-twisters or any other activities focusing students on pronunciation can be thrown in at the pre-communicative stage, provided that they maintain students motivation high and the students understand and accept the rationale behind them.

In conclusion, it is up to teachers to decide – with the course requirement they teach on as well as the interest of the stakeholders in mind, of course – how much emphasis they should put on accuracy. What research shows is that plunging students into unstructured oral communicative practice straight away is not beneficial to the development of accurate pronunciation. The above strategies may not always be easy or practical to implement but are in my experience very effective in enhancing student grasp and execution of the target language pronunciation.

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