Both considering L1 speakers and L2 speakers.

It becomes a bit tricky involving L2 speakers. While a phoneme is defined as one of the units of sound that distinguishes one word from another in a particular language, it's not necessary that every aspects can satisfy for an L2 speaker.

  1. The person was taught that /θ s/ are different sounds in English.

  2. The person can distinguish /θ s/ by ear only carefully, e.g. distinguish sink and think pronounced alone and clearly.

  3. The person can't pronounce them differently h'self.

There are other possibilities for the above factors. Can we argue the existence of a grey area or continuum?

About L1, is /u/ and /w/ an example, if there is no difference in their sound quality.

  • This sounds a lot like Chomsky's idea of absolute neutralization, at least in effect.
    – anomaly
    Oct 8 '18 at 22:02
  • Reminds me of a story my aunt likes to tell about me as a toddler. "Whose toes are these?" she'd ask, tickling. "Yuke's toes!" I replied. She echoed me: "Yuke's toes?" only to get an indignant "No, not Yuke's toes! Yuke's toes!" Oct 8 '18 at 23:12

This (strong absolute neutralization) is theoretically possible although has not yet been shown to exist. The closest case is Yawelmani, where the phonemes u:, o: are realized as [o:] everywhere. There is a well-known argument justifying the distinction, related to vowel harmony. However, the neutralization only applies to long u, and there are stem-forming shortening rules where /u:/ becomes [u] but /o:/ becomes [o], so the two phonemes are not realized the same way absolutely everywhere – there is a context where they are distinct. (There is also closed-syllable shortening where u: surfaces as [o] – shortening of u: to [u] only occurs as part of stem-formation).

As applied to second-language learning, this raises a question as to abstract competence versus concrete performance, and is analogous to the first-language acquisition problem that children may hear a certain distinction in phonemes but don't necessarily produce a distinction. This has proven to be difficult to verify experimentally, although anecdotally it is "verified" by the fact that adults seem to think that child English r is pronounced as [w] (at least, it sounds to adults less like proper adult r and more like w). There was a study (citation lost in the void) where it was shown that among the subjects that seemed to have r→w by adult judgment, articulation of r and w was nevertheless distinct. Anecdotally, some students of Lushootseed neutralized ɬ to ʃ, so that ʃəgʷɬ was pronounced ʃəgʷʃ (others may pronounce it ʃəgʷθ, keeping the phoneme distinct by mapping it to a different English phoneme). They did seem to know the spelling difference between š and ɬ; maybe their articulation of š-cum-ɬ different from that of regular š.

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