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Pronunciation of English Interdental Fricatives by French and Spanish L1 Speakers

Pronunciation is one of the most complicated aspects of teaching and learning English, and because of this complication, there is much debate in TESOL about the correct instruction of pronunciation for ESL students. ESL teachers, especially those working with oral skills and pronunciation, face a difficult task. Is there a single, correct form or dialect of English that should be taught? Should all English speakers sound like Americans or British? What if EFL students plan to study in Australia or Canada? The question is far more complicated than many English pronunciation instructors admit. Of course, context matters. If international students plan to study at an American university, it behooves them to listen to North American dialects – and make sure that their pronunciation is clear and comprehensible to American listeners. Being audience focused, after all, is part of effective communication and good manners.

Interdental fricatives are notoriously difficult for L2 speakers of English because of the fricatives’ absence in the phonemic inventory of a large majority of other world languages.  I chose Spanish and French speakers for this study. All of the consultants for this research were from either Spain or France. I felt it was important to use only one region for each language. This eliminates speaker variant pronunciation due to their speaking different dialects of the same language. I chose Spanish and French because I have studied both in great detail. I also studied in Pau, France which is less than an hour from the border of Spain. Pau lies in Le Pays Basque or Basque country which extends from southern France to Northern Spain. The number of Spanish to French speakers in this region is considerably close.

Methodology

In a study to uncover pronunciation similarities and differences of the English interdental fricatives between native French and Spanish speakers, three native French speakers’ and three native Spanish speakers were surveyed.  To find my consultants, I used the website http://accent.gmu.edu/ to find them. The site allows researchers to find speakers of certain language that meet the researcher’s needs. For this study, all four French consultants are native to France, and all of the Spanish consultants are native to Spain.  All of the consultants’ acquisition method is academic, their length of residence in an English speaking country is less than one year, and their ages of English onset is 11 years of age and older.

French Consultants

French consultant 1 is a twenty year old female from St. Laurent D’onay, which is in southeast France, and other than English and French, she speaks Spanish. She was twelve when she began learning English, and her length of residence in the USA is five months. French consultant 2 is a twenty-two year old female from Nice, which is along the French la côté d’azure, in the southeast of France. In addition to English, she also speaks German. She began learning English at the age of eleven, and her length of residence in the USA is two months. French Consultant 3 is a twenty year old male from St. Louis, France, which is the northeast of France near Normandy. He also speaks German and the age of his English onset is twelve.  One month in the U.K. is his length of residence.

Spanish Consultants

Spanish Consultant 1 is a twenty two year old female from Madrid, Spain. In addition to Spanish and English, she also speaks German. Her age of English onset is 14, and her length of residence in the USA is ten months. Spanish Consultant 2 is a twenty-four year old male from Zaragora, Spain which actually lies in le pays basque in northern Spain. His age of English onset is fourteen, and his length of residence in Ireland is a month. Spanish Consultant 3 is a 28 year old male from Cartagena, Spain. Besides Spanish and English, he speaks German. He began learning English at age eleven and his length of residence in the U.K. is 9 months.

Hypothesis

I predict that Spanish speakers will pronounce the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ correctly while the French mispronounce it and replace the sound with a voiceless alveolar fricative /s/. I also think that both the Spanish and French speakers will pronounce the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ incorrectly, since both languages’ phonetic inventory lack the sound.

Data Analysis

The only sound that every speaker pronounced correctly was the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ as a word medial sound in brother. The word brother is the only time that

Cumulatively, the three French speakers pronounced the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ correctly eight out of fifteen times, or 53.3 % of the time in the data. The three Spanish speakers produced it correctly fourteen out of fifteen times, or 93.3% of the time in the data.  Such high correct pronunciation of the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ is due to the sound’s presence in the phonetic inventory of Spanish in Spain. However, the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ is not represented in the phonemic inventory. According to Llisterri, the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ and the voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ have voiced allophones when they are followed by a voiced consonant (2).  The number of times the three Spanish speakers produced the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ correctly is nine out of eighteen times, or sixty percent of the time. The French language lacks both the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ and the voiceless /θ/ in its phonemic inventory. The three French speakers also produced the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ correctly nine out of fifteen times, or sixty percent of the time.

The French speakers incorrectly replaced the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/  twice with a voiceless alveolar fricative /s/, twice with a voiced interdental fricative /ð/, twice with a voiceless labiodental fricative /f/, and once with a voiceless alveolar plosive /t/.  The /s/ matches the /θ/ in place and manner of articulation, and their places of articulation are fairly close in the mouth.  The /ð/ matches the /θ/ in place and manner of articulation. The /f/ matches the /θ/ in manner of articulation, though their places of articulation are close as well.

The only error in voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ pronunciation was made by Spanish Consultant 1. She replaced the interdental with a voiceless alveolar plosive /t/. The /t/ doesn’t have /θ/’s  same place or manner of articulation, but they are both voiceless sounds and their places of articulation are close in the mouth. It’s even closer when the interdental is made dental by some American English speakers, which can happen when the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ is a word initial or word final sound.

The French speakers replaced the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ twice with a voiced alveolar fricative/z/; four times with a voiced alveolar plosive /d/, two of these were devoiced; and once with an alveolar nasal /n/. The Spanish speakers replaced the voiced interdental fricative /ð/ seven times with a voiced alveolar plosive /d/, and twice with an alveolar nasal /n/. The /z/ matches the /ð/ in manner of articulation, though again, alveolar is close in place of articulation to interdental.

French speaker replacement sounds of /θ/

The only instance of the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ as a word initial sound is in the word thick . French Consultants 2 and 3 followed the correct pronunciation by an unrounded close front /i/, while Spanish Consultant 1 followed it by the lax vowel /ɪ/.

The voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ replaces the voiceless interdental fricative [θ] twice as a word initial sound by the French speakers. Once with French Consultant 1 in the word three , [sri].  The phoneme replacement occurs after the word into, [ɪntu] ending in the nucleus,  a rounded close back /u/, of the word final consonant. This word final vowel is correctly pronounced. The other time /s/ replaces a /θ/ is with French Consultant 2 with the word things, [siŋs]. The phoneme replacement occurs after the word these, [̥diz], the voiced alveolar fricative /z/ is a correct pronunciation. The voiceless alveolar /s/ replacement here could be due to the voiced alveolar /z/; the two sounds are the identical except in respect to voicing.

The voiced interdental fricative /ð/ replaces the voiceless identical sound twice. In the same word with by French Consultant 2 and 3, pronounced [wɪð]. This pronunciation is not necessarily incorrect though. If these two studied English under a British system, this pronunciation would be considered correct. This pronunciation definitely doesn’t affect intelligibility of the word either, but in reference to correct American English pronunciation, it’s incorrect.

The voiceless labiodental fricative /f/’s replacement of /θ/ occurs twice; with the same word things, pronounced [fiŋz]; and by the same speaker, French Consultant 3. The replacement occurs after the word these, [̥diz], a voiced alveolar fricative /z/ as the word final sound.

Spanish speaker replacement sounds of /θ/

Again, the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ was incorrectly mispronounced only once, by Spanish Consultant 1 in the word things, pronounced [tiŋgs]. The replacement phoneme follows a voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ in the word these, [dɪs].

French speaker replacement sounds of  /ð/

In addition to /ð/ as a word medial sound in brother, the only interdental sound to be correctly pronounced is as a word initial sound in the, which all three consultants pronounce correctly, following the /ð/ by an unstressed schwa /ə/.

The replacement of the /ð/ by French speakers occurs twice with the voiced alveolar fricative /z/ twice by the same speaker, Spanish Consultant 1 in the same word, these, pronounced [zis] both times. The first follows a correct pronunciation of bring, [bɹĩŋ]; velar nasal /ŋ/ is the word final sound. The second /z/ replacement in these follows the word scoop, which she pronounces [skup˺]. The replacement sound occurs after an unreleased voiceless bilabial plosive /p/. This unreleased plosive is an incorrect pronunciation according to Standard American English Standards. The plosive as a word final sound is aspirated /ʰ/.

The voiced alveolar plosive /d/ replaces /θ/ four times in word initial sound position. Once with French Consultant 1 in the word the, pronounced /̥də/. The voiceless allophone /̥d/ of the phoneme /d/ replacement occurs after the technically incorrect pronunciation of from, [fɹʌm]; a bilabial nasal /m/ as the word final sound. The pronunciation is technically incorrect because a general rule for stressed and unstressed syllables of standard American English is that only lexical words like nouns, verbs, pronouns, and adjectives have stressed syllables; and content words, most other parts of speech, are unstressed. So a correct pronunciation would have an unstressed vowel in the preposition from, [fɹəm]. The second replacing of /θ/ with /d/ is with French Consultant 2 in the word these, [diz] after the word bring, pronounced [brĩŋ]. The last two /d/ replacement of /ð/ in the same word, word position, and environment as French Consultant 2. However, French Consultant 3 also mispronounces the /ð/ in the word the which follows a voiceless alveolar plosive /t/ in the word at, pronounced incorrectly as [ɛt].

Spanish speaker replacement sounds of  /ð/

Replacement of  /ð/ with /d/ occurs nine times, five times by the same speaker, Spanish Consultant 1, who uses /d/ to replace /ð/ in every word except for brother. Spanish Consultant 2 replaces /ð/ with /d/ three times, but all for the same word the, pronounced [də]. The follws from, for, and at, pronounced [fɹʌm], [fɔɹ], and [ət] accordingly; so, pronunciation of the as [də] occurs after a bilabial nasal /m/, an alveolar approximant /ɹ/, and a voiceless alveolar plosive /t/.

Spanish consultant 3 is the only Spanish consultant that replaced /ð/ with an alveolar nasal /n/. It occurs as a word initial position in the word the, /nə/ following a bilabial nasal /m/ in the word from, [fɹʌm].

Discussion

In total the French consultants incorrectly pronounced the voiceless interdental fricative /θ/ seven times out of fifteen. The replacement of /θ/ with a voiceless alveolar fricative /s/, a voiced interdental fricative /ð/, and a voiceless labiodental fricative /f/ all occur two out of seven times or 28.5% of /θ/ pronunciation errors. /ð/ replaces /θ/ only once, or 14.2% of /θ/ pronunciation errors.

Incorrect pronunciation of the voiced /ð/ interdental fricative by the French speakers occurs seven times out of fifteen. The replacement sounds are the voiced alveolar fricative /d/ which occurs five out of seven times or 71.4% of /ð/ pronunciation errors, and the voiced alveolar fricative /z/ two out of seven times or 28.5% of  /ð/ pronunciation errors.

The Spanish consultants had less of a variety in placement sounds than my French consultants. Replacement of the voiceless interdental fricative occurs once as a voiceless alveolar plosive /t/, or 100% of all errors.

The only other sound that the Spanish consultants replaced /ð/ with other than the voiced alveolar plosive /d/ is the alveolar nasal /n/ only once or ten percent of /ð/ pronunciation errors.

Conclusion

According to this data, both of my predictions for how the Spanish speakers would pronounce the interdental fricatives were correct. The most frequent replacement sound of /ð/ by Spanish speakers is the voiced alveolar plosive /d/, just as I hypothesized. However, my hypothesis for how French speakers would pronounce the interdental fricatives was incorrect. The voiceless alveolar fricative /s/, the voiced interdental fricative /ð/, and the voiceless labiodental fricative /f/ all occur at the same frequency for the French speakers’ data. Also they pronounced /ð/ most often as a voiced alveolar plosive /d/, not the voiced alveolar fricative /z/ as I predicted.

Spanish speakers are more likely to replace both interdental sounds with more consistent sounds than French speakers. Also, I found it interesting that the only sound that all speakers produced regularly was the voiceless interdental fricative /ð/ as a word medial sound in brother. If I were to further research in this field, I would like to investigate ELL’s pronunciation of the interdental fricatives as word medial sounds versus the pronunciation of /ð/ as word initial and finial sounds.

 

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Comments on: "Pronunciation of English Interdental Fricatives by French and Spanish L1 Speakers" (1)

  1. boynamedsue said:

    Your hypothesis underestimated the level of correct pronunciation of the phoneme /ð/ by Spanish speakers for very understandable reasons. Any Spanish schoolbook will tell you the sound doesn’t exist in Spanish, but it is actually found in many Spanish dialects as the word final “d” in words like “Madrid” and “¡hablad!”.

    It is much more difficult for Spanish speakers when in initial position rather than intervocal or final.

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