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Vowel Length Contrasts in Arabic and Japanese Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jan 15th, 2022

Introduction

In linguistics, vowel length can be defined as the length of time a vowel is sounded. Japanese makes great use of vowel length in its phonetics. One’s native language has an impact on learning and mastery of a non native language. This is evident in the various dialects in English among communities in which English is a foreign language. According to Maye, Weiss, & Aslin (2008), adult non native language learners exhibit significant differences with their native counterparts in their ability to grasp and articulate the phonetic aspects of the language.

This paper seeks to establish the effect of one’s native language on their phonetic mastery of vowel length in contrast to a non native language; in this case, Japanese and Arabic

Article Summary

Tsukada and Hirata (2009), acknowledge that the first language is significant in the process of learning and mastering a second non native language. A question arises as to whether speakers of native languages which use vowel length which contrasts conspicuously, like the Japanese, are able to use this capability in discriminating vowel lengths in other languages, like Arabic, better than speakers of native languages that are insensitive to vowel lengths, like the Australian dialect of English.

In a study of the Australian English listeners’ discrimination of Thai stops, the inability to discriminate between the stops is attributed to their limited experience with Thai. The Australian English listeners, however low their discrimination of the Thai stops was, were better and more accurate compared to the Japanese, whose native language has less final stops. This concluded that for native speakers to accurately discriminate phonetic contrasts, they need experience as well as exposure to native phonetic contrasts.

Some phonological features are shared across languages, and in Japanese and Arabic, there are such features. Vowels like /e/ or /o/ appear in Japanese, but do not have any phonemic meaning in Arabic. The following vowels; /i/, /a/ or /u/, however, are shared between the two languages. We would therefore ask ourselves whether these shared features would pose an equal difficulty in discriminating their vowel length contrast as the non shared features. The assumption is that discrimination accuracy may vary between the shared and totally alien phonetic features across different languages.

The present study sought to determine whether discrimination levels depended on shared phonetic features. In the study, native Japanese, native Arabic speakers and native Australian speakers were subjected to both Japanese and Arabic languages and their vowel length discrimination ability measured against the two languages, on similar conditions.

The results indicated that native Arabians discriminated vowel lengths in Arabic more accurately than in Japanese. On the other hand, native Japanese discriminated vowel lengths in Japanese more accurately than in Arabic. The Australian English speakers discriminated lengths in Arabic at 82% and Japanese at 75%. They were less accurate than native speakers in each language.

Of importance is the finding that the native Arabs were more accurate in discriminating vowel length contrasts in Arabic than the native Japanese and Australians. This is despite the fact that native Japanese had more experience with vowel length contrasts in Japanese than in Arabic. The Japanese therefore showed no advantage in using this experience to discriminate Arabic vowel length contrasts than the inexperienced Australians.

At the same time, the native Japanese were better at discriminating vowel length contrasts in Japanese better than the Arabic and Australian listeners (both at 75%), despite the native Arabic speakers having vowel length experience in Arabic.

It is also important to note that the native Arabic listeners did not find more difficult in discriminating /e-e…/or/o-o…/, Japanese vowels that do not feature in Arabic.

Critical Reflections

The present study sought to determine how listeners of Arabic, Japanese and Australian English compare in discriminating non native vowel lengths. It was discovered that experience with high sensitive native vowel length contrasts did not provide any advantage in discriminating vowel lengths in non native language.

According to Cox & Palethorpe (2007), we may want to find out why the Australian listeners compared relatively well in discrimination with the native Japanese and Arabic speakers. The English, however limited, does have pairs of words whose pronunciation differs by vowel length, like hit Vs heat. These may have helped them in discrimination.

Another explanation for this performance is their ability to note and ascribe importance to certain cues within the vowels lengths of the two languages, (salience). They may have noted variations in durations during speech and figured out what they meant.

According to Maye, Weiss, & Aslin (2008), the fact that even infants learning their first languages show a relatively good command of duration contrast, could be an indicator that vowel length contrast is not as difficult to acquire as may be expected. This could be the explanation as to why the Japanese and Arabic experience with vowel length contrast does not give the advantage over the Australian listeners who lack the experience.

A disclaimer to this study is that the words used in the study were real with meaning, and therefore, the two groups are likely to have applied both the phonetic and interpretational skills in the discrimination process. A test study could be conducted using native speakers of quantity –sensitive language such as Thai, which lacks lexical meaning. This would help in confirming the results of the present study.

Conclusion

The present study, just like the previous study of stop place contrasts, showed a lack of capability for both the Japanese and Arabic to positively transfer the effect of their first language in the cross-language speech perception. We could therefore say that experience with phonetic contrasts in their first language alone is not enough, it needs to be coupled with authentic first language realization of phonetics to enable one to accurately discriminate phonetic contrasts.

References

  1. Cox, F., and Palethorpe, S. (2007). Illustrations of the IPA: Australian English. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 37, 341-350.
  2. Maye, J., Weiss, D. J., and Aslin, R. N. (2008). Statistical Phonetic Learning in Infants: Facilitation and Feature Generalization. Developmental Science, 11, 122-134.
  3. Tsukada, K., and Hirata, Y. (2009). Perceptions of Arabic and Japanese Vowel Length Contrasts By Native Versus Non Native Japanese Listeners. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Volume 125, issue 4, pp 2760-2760.
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"Vowel Length Contrasts in Arabic and Japanese." IvyPanda, 15 Jan. 2022, ivypanda.com/essays/vowel-length-contrasts-in-arabic-and-japanese/.

1. IvyPanda. "Vowel Length Contrasts in Arabic and Japanese." January 15, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/vowel-length-contrasts-in-arabic-and-japanese/.


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IvyPanda. "Vowel Length Contrasts in Arabic and Japanese." January 15, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/vowel-length-contrasts-in-arabic-and-japanese/.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "Vowel Length Contrasts in Arabic and Japanese." January 15, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/vowel-length-contrasts-in-arabic-and-japanese/.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Vowel Length Contrasts in Arabic and Japanese'. 15 January.

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