Why is it common for Americans who study foreign languages to keep producing /ɾ/ as a retroflex sound, even though [ɾ] is present in their pronunciation of native words like city and water?


[ɾ] is indeed present in American English—but only as an allophone of /t/ and /d/ in certain environments.

So AmE speakers don't tend to think of it as a rhotic sound; we're generally used to associating Spanish and Italian /r/ [ɾ] with English /r/ [ɹ], not with English /t/ [ɾ] or /d/ [ɾ].

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    But this affects even people who have taken formal classes on the languages they are learning. Is there still a linguistic/psychological barrier to try using the American [ɾ] even after that has been pointed out? – John Smith Mar 23 '20 at 20:31
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    @JohnSmith I know plenty of native English-speakers who have learned to use the alveolar flap in other languages; it's just difficult and takes significant effort to learn to separate out sounds that are linked to the same phoneme in your native language. – Draconis Mar 23 '20 at 20:33
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    It's also worth noting that there is probably also interference from orthography for native AmE-speakers learning, say, Spanish. – Miztli Mar 24 '20 at 11:13
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    @JohnSmith A psychological barrier probably pretty much sums it up. It’s similar to how many speakers of languages that have nasal vowels allophonically (including AmE) still find it hard to learn to use them phonemically in French or Portuguese; or speakers languages which have non-phonemic tone patterns (again, like AmE) find it exceedingly difficult to distinguish and use the same tones phonemically when learning a tonal language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 24 '20 at 18:53

It is probably something special about being a "rhotic", which only seems to be definable phonotactically and not phonetically, see Chabot 2019. There are parallel facts in Moroccan Arabic and Berber, where the French rhotic is borrowed as a tap [ɾ] in Berber and Arabic, despite the fact that those languages have segments that are phonetically closer to the phonetic realization of French "r" ([ʁ,χ]). On the other hand, second language Lushootseed learners (first-language English speakers) who don't master [ɬ] pick a phonetically-similar sound of English, either [ʃ] or [θ] (the former choice nutralizes Lushootseed [ʃ,ɬ], the latter introduces a non-Lushootseed sound and maintains contrast).

  • What happens in Berber and Arabic, and maybe in other languages, is due to the second language acquisition via writing. In these languages, uvular rhotic is generally written kh/gh with Latin alphabet, while r is used to transcribe the alveolar rhotic. So if a Berber speaker sees the word Paris, he will pronounce it with an alveolar rhotic. Thus, this has nothing to do with hearing. – amegnunsen Mar 28 '20 at 10:29

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