Issues in L2 phonological processing

Abstract : Learning a foreign language (L2) is a difficult task, requiring considerable amounts of time and effort. One of the challenges learners must face is the processing of sounds that do not exist or are not used contrastively in their native language. The mismatch between the properties of the native language and the foreign one leads to distortions in the perception of non-native sounds and to foreign accent in their production. Moreover, these difficulties persist across levels of processing as problems in prelexical L2 sound perception and production influence the processing of words containing these sounds. Fortunately, with growing proficiency the abilities to perceive and produce L2 sounds gradually improve, although they might never attain native-like levels. This thesis focuses on L2 phonological processing and its development across modalities (perception vs. production) and across levels of processing (prelexical vs. lexical). In the first part of the thesis, we investigate the relationship between perception and production in L2. Previous literature has provided contradictory evidence as to whether perception and production develop in parallel. We hypothesized that several methodological limitations could have brought confounds in some of these previous studies. We therefore designed an experiment that addressed these methodological issues and tested proficient English learners of French on their perception and production of the French contrast /u/-/y/ that does not exist in English. We included tasks that tap into both prelexical and lexical levels of processing in order to examine whether the link between the two modalities, if any, holds across levels of processing. Results showed that perception and production were correlated, but only when tested with tasks that tap into the same level of processing. We next explored if the developments in one modality precede developments in the other and found that good perception is indeed a prerequisite for good production. In the second part of the thesis, we continue to investigate the phonological processing of L2 across levels by focusing on the perception of the English sound /h/ by intermediate to proficient French learners of English. We first studied if the poor perception of this sound previously reported at the prelexical level also causes problems at the lexical level. We also looked at whether asymmetries found in production (i.e. more deletions than insertions) are reflected in perception. The results revealed that French learners of English have difficulty in perceiving /h/-initial words and non-words at the lexical level. Moreover, an asymmetry was indeed observed in their performance, which was interpreted as an indication that French learners of English have imprecise phonological representations of /h/-initial but not of vowel-initial words. Second, we carried out a training study to test if phonetic training could improve the perception of /h/ not only at the prelexical, but at the lexical level as well. We found that the High Phonetic Variability training did improve the perception of /h/ both at the prelexical and lexical levels, and that this positive effect was retained four months after training. Finally, we examined if asymmetries in the perception of /h/ at the lexical level could be explained by asymmetries at the prelexical level. The results revealed no such relationship. Overall, this thesis demonstrates the complex and dynamic nature of the mechanisms underlying non-native speech processing and its development during learning both across modalities and across levels of processing. We discuss how future research could further explore the links between these elements of the phonological processing apparatus to get a better understanding of L2 acquisition.
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Gerda Ana Melnik. Issues in L2 phonological processing. Linguistics. PSL Research University, 2019. English. ⟨NNT : 2019PSLEE007⟩. ⟨tel-02304656⟩

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