The Acquisition of Phonetic Details. Difficulties of the English Pronunciation for German Second Language Speakers and Teaching Suggestions

Term Paper, 2019

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Phonetic Performance in Second Language Acquisition

3. First Language Interference
3.1 Differences in the Phonemic Inventory
3.1.1 Problems with /0/ and /ö/
3.1.2 Problems with /w/
3.2 Devoicing of Final Voiced Obstruents

4. Perspectives for Language Teaching

5. Conclusion

6. List of References

1. Introduction

Nowadays, it seems perfectly normal to many Germans using English words in daily conversations, however, on the level of pronunciation, it is common to stick to the German sound system. Instead of using “perfect foreign pronunciation in the middle of a German sentence” (Eckert & Barry, 2005: 88), English words are placed into the context of the native language and are characterized by its foreign-sounding accent.

This accent is defined as a “set of dynamic segmental and suprasegmental habits” (Moyer, 2013: 11) which give information on a person's social background and indicate “communicative stance” (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 12). At the same time, pronunciation itself “conveys linguistic meaning” (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 12) and can lead to misunderstandings. While the pronunciation of individual sounds does not make a difference in meaning in the German language, it can have a distinctive function in the English language. Many language learners, however, are not aware of this contradiction between their first language and the target language and therefore, tend to pronounce English words in an incorrect manner. Yet, there are language learners who know about the different phonological patterns of the two languages but, even at an advanced stage or after staying in the “target language country” (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 11) for many years, remain with a foreign-sounding accent.

To understand the reasons why German second language learners face difficulties pronouncing English sounds, this term paper focuses on potential areas of concern. Therefore, some general information on the acquisition of a second language will be given, discussing the reasons for difficulties acquiring a second language, especially speaking of older language learners. Next, the role of the learner' s first language and its impact on the second language acquisition will be examined followed by a detailed representation of the differences in the German and English phonemic inventory. For this, the phonemes /0/, /Ö/ and /w/ are considered more precisely. After that, the final devoicing of obstruents is described by contrasting the two languages. Based on these results, teaching suggestions for overcoming the pronunciation difficulties will be discussed and a final conclusion is drawn.

2. Phonetic Performance in Second Language Acquisition

To acquire a second language faces the language learner with a number of difficulties. One and at the same time the most frequently given reason for difficulties in second language acquisition is the learner's age (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 13). Studies have shown an interrelation between the factor age and the “second language development” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 94) and came to the result that it is especially older learners showing problems in the spoken language (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 94). The migration of refugees represents one example of these findings as “it is frequently observed that most children from immigrant families eventually speak the languages of their new community with native-like fluency” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92), whereas parents often are less efficient than their children, particularly regarding the pronunciation and the acquisition of specific vocabulary (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92).

These observations confirm the assumptions of the Critical Period Hypothesis stating that successful second language acquisition is limited to the time before puberty (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 13). This implies, that there is a critical period which enables the learner of higher proficiency in second language learning until “developmental changes in the brain” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92) reduce the ability of language acquisition (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92). This is because language learning is no longer “based on the innate biological structure” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92) that is said to improve the acquisition of a language in the early stage of development (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92). Further, it is stated that phonology represents the greatest difficulty in this context as the “neural cells related to phonological acquisition cease to be adaptive past a certain age” (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 13).

According to this, older learners are required to adapt their language learning to this biological restriction by relying on “more general learning abilities” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92) which are not only used for the acquisition of a language but also for the processing of other information (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92). However, studies claim that the “general learning abilities” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 92) do not allow the learner to achieve the same success in language learning as the younger learners do because of their availability of “innate capacities” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013, 92). On the other hand, studies of second language acquisition also found out that older language learners are capable of a higher performance in language learning (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 93). The reason for this is that criteria such as “metalinguistic knowledge, memory strategies, and problem-solving skills” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 93) are more developed and therefore, instructions in second language learning can be handled more effectively compared with younger learners being in similar situations (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 93).

Despite the passing of a critical period as one reason for difficulties in second language acquisition, there are also differences in the language input that the learners receive. While young learners often have the opportunity to use language in an unconstrained atmosphere, older language learners might experience a lot more external pressure “to speak fluently and accurately from the very beginning” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 93) whereas language imperfections of younger learners are more widely accepted (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 93). Moreover, it is especially older language learners that are expected to use more specific vocabulary and complex language structures in order to express their ideas (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 93). If they fail to do so, the language itself might evoke negative emotions and will be associated with fear, frustration and embarrassment causing the learners to lose the motivation of further improving their language skills and “willingness to place themselves in situations where they will need to use the new language” (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013: 93).

3. First Language Interference

Even though, the age of a learner represents a commonly cited reason for the achievements in second language learning there are also dissenting votes claiming that the assumptions of the Critical Period Hypothesis, especially “in regard to accent” (Smith, 2013: 284), do not provide any solid explanation (Smith, 2013: 284). In contrast, they name the increasing “stability of the first language (L1) phonetic system” (Smith, 2013: 285) as the explanation for the “age-related decline” (Smith, 2013: 285) in second language acquisition and phonetic accuracy (Smith, 2013: 285). According to that, the progressive development of the first language system affects the second language learning meaning that for the language learner it becomes more difficult to acquire “new patterns of phonetic output” (Smith, 2013: 285) after entering adulthood because of the fixed phonetic system in the learner's first language (Smith, 2013: 285). Therefore, the language learner needs to adjust to “unfamiliar sound categories” (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 11) that might stand in contradiction to the language patterns of the first language and must ensure to only transfer native phonemic structures to the target language that are seen as being correct in both systems (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 11).

3.1 Differences in the Phonemic Inventory

A second language learner often gets confronted with a different phonemic inventory in the target language that can contain completely new sound categories which do not have a direct counterpart in the learner's first language (Wipf, 1979: 7). This is especially difficult in the early stages of language development because the learners tend to “rely on the mother tongue(s) and previously learned languages as a knowledge base” (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 12). But, not only the acquisition of completely unknown sounds can lead to problems, also similar sound features of the first and the second language cause difficulties (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 12). In many cases, similar sounds are “presumed to be identical” (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 12) and small contrasts are not even noticed by the learner (Levis & Moyer, 2014: 12).

The sound systems of the English and German language are widely similarly structured which is why German speakers seem to not have major difficulties in the pronunciation of most English sounds (Swan & Smith, 2001: 38). Nonetheless, there are also differences in the German and English phonemic inventory that can cause a German-sounding accent. This concerns the sounds /0/ and /Ö/ which are phonemic in English but are no components of the German sound system, and the sound /w/ that is a “common source of mispronunciation” (Wipf, 1979: 7). Another problem for the German second language speaker of English is the final devoicing of consonants that makes it especially difficult for German learners to perceive or pronounce “the final voiced-voiceless contrast of English” (Delattre, 1965: 91).

3.1.1 Problems with /0/ and /Ö/

Some of the pronunciation difficulties learners face when acquiring a new language are based on the segment level (Bauer, 2012: 85). One typical example for a phonetic problem of German speakers learning English are the phonemes /0/ and /Ö/ which are not phonemic in the German language (Bauer, 2012: 85). The two sounds /0/ and /Ö/ “are a cognate pair” (Crannell, 2012: 144) and are classed as “dental fricative[s]” (O'Brien & Fagan, 2016: 43). For the production of the fricative /0/ the soft palate is raised and the “tip of the tongue makes a light contact with the edge and inner surface of the upper incisors” (Gomez-Gonzalez & Sanchez Roura, 2016: 188). The air that is released through the contradiction formed between the tongue and the teeth produces a frictional sound (O'Brien & Fagan, 2016:43). The phoneme is considered voiceless, meaning that the “vocal folds do not vibrate, but are wide apart” (Gomez-Gonzalez & Sanchez Roura, 2016: 188). Its counterpart /Ö/ is produced similarly, and therefore sharing the same place and manner of articulation (Gomez-Gonzalez & Sanchez Roura, 2016: 189). However, /Ö/ is considered a voiced dental fricative which means that “the vocal folds showing different degrees ofvibration depending on its context of occurrence” (Gomez-Gonzalez & Sanchez Roura, 2016: 189).

The realization of the two sounds does not only constitute a difficulty for German second language learners, but also in first language acquisition /0/ and /Ö/ are “generally the latest phonemes to be acquired” (Sander, 1972 cited in Shulman & Capone, 2010: 230). Although, fricatives are normally acquired just after the acquisition of nasals, stops and glides, the learners seem to have problems performing its articulatory gestures and therefore, the phonemes are acquired relatively late also in first language acquisition (Shulman & Capone, 2010: 230). Another frequently cited claim, however, is that the production of the sounds /0/ and /Ö/ itself is not problematic for the language learner, but that the combination with other fricatives like /s/ and /z/ might be causing problems because of the quick changes the learner has to practice (Eckert & Barry, 2005: 88).

German second language learners that are confronted with /0/ and /Ö/ as completely new sounds often tend to substitute /t, d/ or /s, z/ for /0, 0/ (Crannell, 2012: 144). An important difference between the native and the target language, however, is that the fricatives /s/, /z/, /0/ and /Ö/ “are capable of distinguishing meaning” (O'Brien & Fagan, 2016: 43) in standard English, whereas in German the sounds are not distinctive and therefore, the substitution can cause problems the language learner might not be aware of (Eckert & Barry, 2005: 88).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Acquisition of Phonetic Details. Difficulties of the English Pronunciation for German Second Language Speakers and Teaching Suggestions
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Applied Linguistics, L2, German Second Language, Teaching, Suggestions, Teaching Suggestions, Phonetics, Pronunciation, English, Difficulties
Quote paper
Chiara Alina Sachwitz (Author), 2019, The Acquisition of Phonetic Details. Difficulties of the English Pronunciation for German Second Language Speakers and Teaching Suggestions, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Acquisition of Phonetic Details. Difficulties of the English Pronunciation for German Second Language Speakers and Teaching Suggestions

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free