Phonetic and phonological development in second language acquisition and foreign language learning

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This paper discusses development in L1 and L2 perception and production in the light of prototype theory and of cross-sectional and longitudinal studies on bilinguals’ phonetic and phonological systems. According to Weinreich’s definition, each foreign language learner is not simply to be viewed as a potential L2-speaker, but has to be considered a bilingual individual, i.e. the “locus of the [linguistic] contact” [43: 1]. Research on phonetic and phonological development in bilinguals usually deals either with early or late bilinguals (i.e. from birth and after puberty respectively), that is to say, with adult foreign language learners, whereas cases of exposure to a second or foreign language between birth and puberty are largely neglected. This paper describes phonetic and phonological development in German-Italian bilinguals: it investigates what happens in monolingual and bilingual infant and adult minds, and identifies the mechanisms which enable speakers to ‘translate’ perceived acoustic (i.e. physical) sounds into speech sounds and to produce them correctly in L1 and L2. More specifically, the paper presents the results of a longitudinal investigation performed on children raised bilingually after the age of three, when still at a pre-school age but having reached high L1 phonetic competence on which a ‘new’ (L2-specific) system is built. It further discusses empirical data of cross-sectional investigations performed with adult foreign language learners. The experimental data are within a theoretical framework of L1 and L2 phonetic acquisition based on applied psycholinguistics; they have important implications for L2-pronunciation training in early (pre-pubertal) and late (post-pubertal) foreign language education, i.e. language education in a formal setting before and after the so-called “critical period” for exposure-based L2 phonetic acquisition. It is hypothesized that, in analogy with spontaneous L1 and L2 language acquisition, in foreign language acquisition phonetic development is more effective when the phonetic training is prosody-centered rather than segment-centered: phonetic training in a foreign language has to trigger prosodic awareness rather than formal correctness of single segments, as prosody may be considered the interface between the grammar of a language and the speaker’s emotions and intentions and thus has a central role in communication.
Lingua originaleEnglish
Titolo della pubblicazione ospiteProceedings of the International Conference “Challenges in Foreign Language Education
Numero di pagine8
Stato di pubblicazionePubblicato - 2010


  • language acquisition
  • phonetics


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