Non-Native Phonemic Distinction and the Important Role of Individual Differences
How much casual exposure is sufficient for altering adult second language perceptual skills significantly? This research question led to a quantitative study that investigated the early stages of new phonemic category formation; English exposure effects in non-English-speaking Brazilian adults served as the focus of this investigation. Forty Brazilian Portuguese native speakers with varying levels of English contact and ten native speakers of American English took a 168-item same-different vowel perception test that analyzed the influence of casual exposure. Overall trends suggested a significant degree of flexibility for non-native perception in three of the four vowel contrast contexts. A closer examination of the data also pointed to important individual differences that were overshadowed by the expressed quantitative approach. This emphasis is supported by Repp’s (1983) characterization of perception as “idiolectal” and, therefore, specific to the individual. Important deviations from overall trends have also been noted in both Bradlow et al. (1997) and Flege and Mackay (2004). Participants’ overall adherence to the predicted trends, therefore, must not be viewed as a limitation on an individual participant’s potential second language perception. Discussion concluded with calls for greater focus on individual differences (also reflected in Bradlow et al., 1997) and greater awareness of individuals’ potentials within foreign language learning contexts.
Keywords: applied linguistics, phonetics, individual differences, Brazilian Portuguese
Dr. Anne Schluter
English Language Instructor, English Language Center, Koc University