American English Phonetics

Another American English Faculty Project

A second factor determining the degree of foreign accent and of faulty perception is the extent to which the learner has progressed on the path from the worst possible state of affairs illustrated above, i.e. complete interference, to the ‘real’ pronunciation of the foreign language. In other words, how far has the acquisition process gone?

Acquiring the pronunciation of a foreign language is a process that takes time and effort. On the whole, you will find that once you have a clear idea of how a particular phoneme is pronounced – or realized, to use the technical term – you can usually soon pronounce it in isolated words. You will find, however, that it is much more difficult to pronounce it correctly when reading a sentence or a text, and that it is even more difficult to pronounce correctly in conversation. That is because an increasingly large share of your attention is required in these tasks: the less attention you can devote to the pronunciation of a particular phoneme, the more likely it is to be wrong, that is, Dutch. That is why learners usually have a better pronunciation when they read out a simple text than when they are speaking freely. If you go on trying, however, you will eventually need so little of your attention for the production of the foreign sound that you can produce it confidently not only when reading out single words, but also when speaking freely. A complication that may arise in the acquisition process is that newly acquired pronunciation features may be overgeneralized. Let us, for the sake of the argument, assume that you pronounce English words like par, tar, car (/pɑr, tɑr, kɑr/) without aspiration. You now know that whenever /p, t, k/ occur at the beginning of a syllable this aspiration should be there, and you decide to live by that rule whenever you speak or read English. But because the non-aspiration of these sounds is part of your automatic behavior, you will find that you only aspirate these sounds once every so often (and probably /t/ more frequently than /p/), in part depending on whether you are able to consciously think of aspirating them. Gradually, the amount of conscious attention that you need will become smaller, but now you may overgeneralize the rule you have learnt, and begin to use aspiration in words like spar, star, scar, where in fact English no more has aspirated plosives than Dutch has in spar, ster and scepsis. It may be some time before you will be able to say that the correct pattern of pronunciation has become part of your automatic behavior.

The progress you make in the production of English sounds will go hand in hand with improvements in your perception of them. Helped by active observation, you will become more sensitive to the differences between such GA sounds as /æ/ and /ɛ/, /ʊ/ and /uː/, /ð/and /d/, and /b/ and /v/, as well as the differences between the GA phonemes and their Dutch counterparts. Obviously, such progress is not possible if you do not make the most of the opportunities you have to hear English: you should for instance try and make a point of watching American English TV-programs. To sharpen your ability to identify GA phonemes, a set of recorded phoneme discrimination exercises is available as an app (for Android, Apple, and Windows phones). There is also a set of recorded pronunciation units offering practice material for the GA vowels and consonants, specially aimed at Dutch learners. These exercises are accessible for Radboud University students only.