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How Phonological Differences affect Second Language Acquisition

written by: R. H. • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

Phonological differences between languages--that is, the difference in the sounds that make up different languages--have a major effect on how easy or hard it is for a person to learn a second language. It is far easier for one to learn a new language with a similar phonology to his first language.

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    What are Phonological Differences between Languages?

    Phonology is the study of the sound systems that make up language. Every language uses different sounds to make up their entire sound system. Some languages share many similar sounds. For example, Spanish and Italian share many similar sounds and therefore have a similar phonological makeup. On the other hand, there are many languages that do not share as many similar sounds. For example, English and Mandarin Chinese have many sounds that are different; thus, they are very phonologically different from one another.

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    How do Phonological Differences Affect Language Acquisition?

    When a student decides to begin learning a new language, he is faced with many challenges. One challenge is learning to recognize, classify and produce the sounds of the language he is learning. If the sounds of the language he wishes to learn are very different from the language he has grown up speaking, acquiring the new language will be more of a challenge than if the second language is phonologically similar to his first language.

    For example, the English sounds "r," "l," and "th" are often roadblocks to many students who are trying to learn English; many English learners find these sounds challenging because these sounds simply do not exist in their mother tongue.

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    Phonological Differences: Tips for Teachers

    As a teacher, how can you help your students tackle the phonology of the language you are helping them learn? First, make a phonological chart of the language. Doing a simple Internet search on the language you are teaching--for example, "Spanish phonology," will bring up web pages that will include descriptions, even charts, of all of the sounds in the Spanish language.

    Once you have identified the vowel and consonant sounds of the language you are teaching, create large flashcards with each sound written on them (you can write the sound using the letters that the particular language uses to write that sound). Write the sounds that are different from English (or from the students' mother tongue) in a different language. As you go through the flashcards with the students, either introduce them to words that use that sound, or have a native speaker of the language share words that use that sound.

    Spend extra time focusing on sounds that are phonologically different from the students' first language. If they are at a more advanced stage of language learning, have the students listen to a brief, slow dialogue in the language. Ask them to listen for words that contain a particular sound. Once they are able to recognize the sounds they are hearing in the language, students will have a much easier time understanding the language, and learning to produce it themselves.

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    Phonological Differences: Tips for Students

    What is the best way to learn the phonology of a language that is very different from your first language? Start by reading a phonology of the language you're learning, if one has been written. Seeing a chart of the sounds in the language, as well as reading (or better yet, listening to) example words, will be a huge help in learning to recognize and produce the language's sounds.

    Once you have overviewed the phonology of the language you wish to learn, try listening to a dialogue, or watching a brief film clip, in the language. Listen intently for a particular sound. Try to pick out words containing a sound. When you are able to pick out and recognize the sounds being spoken, try mimicking them until your voice sounds more like that of the native speaker.

    Although it is challenging to learn a language with a very different phonology from your own language, it can be done with dedicated study, careful listening, and much practice at pronunciation!