Poster: The acquisition of the English /s-z/ voice contrast by learners of three L1s

Jun 21, 2021 — Jun 23, 2021
Universitat Pompeu Fabra - Universitat de Barcelona
Barcelona [🌐online],


English has a high functional load voice contrast between /s/ and /z/, which is active word-initially (sing /s/ - zing /z/), word-medially (fussy /s/ - fuzzy /z/) and word-finally (rice /s/ - rise /z/). In this study we investigate the acquisition of this contrast /s/ - /z/ by FrenchL1 (FR), Northern ItalianL1 (NI) and American SpanishL1 (AS) learners.

Given the status of [s] and [z] in their L1s, and based on predictions of current L2 phonology acquisition models (SLM 1 and MDH 2), we expect that the three groups will show different voicing patterns for these sounds.

/s/ and /z/ are phonemes in FR

casse → /kas/

case → /kaz/

obligatory allophones in varieties of NI: [z] before voiced sounds, [s] in front of voiceless consonants (cf. 3), yet voicing contributes to oppose minimal pairs such as

casa → /ˈkasa/ → [ˈkaza]

cassa → /ˈkasːa/ → [ˈkasːa] (where the primary distinctive feature is length)

AS only has /s/, but partial or total voicing can happen in various contexts (esp. syllable coda) due to non-obligatory voice assimilation with the following consonant, esp. in casual speech [4].

los gatos → /los ˈgatos/ → [los̬ ˈgatos]

mismo → /‘mismo/ → [‘mis̬mo]

So, based on the SLM and despite potential difficulties encountered by all learners, we expect that (i) FR and NI learners will exhibit no difficulties in producing distinct realizations for /s/ and /z/; (ii) AS learners will exhibit difficulties in producing distinct realisations for this contrast. Additionally, based on MDH, we expect that (iii) AS learners will have difficulties producing /z/ (universally and cross-linguistically more marked) rather than /s/, and that (iv) AS and NI learners will show difficulties with /z/ word-finally (more marked than word-initially, and non-existent in NI).

  1. Best, C. T., & Tyler, M. D. (2007). Nonnative and second-language speech perception: Commonalities and complementarities. In M. Munro, & O.-S. Bohn (Eds.), Second language speech learning (pp.13–34). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins. ↩︎

  2. Eckman, F. R. (2008). Typological markedness and second language phonology. In H. C. Hansen Edwards, M.L Zampini (Eds.) Phonology and second language acquisition (pp. 95-115). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ↩︎

  3. Bertinetto, P. M., & Loporcaro, M. (2005). The sound pattern of Standard Italian, as compared with the varieties spoken in Florence, Milan and Rome. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 35(2), 131-151. ↩︎

Leonardo Contreras Roa
Leonardo Contreras Roa
PhD in Linguistics and Didactics

Phonetician and English teacher, PhD in Linguistics