Transfer of some phonetic/phonological features from the first language to a second language is common in second language acquisition. For example, aspiration is not phonemic in English. Voiceless plosives (/p,t,k/) in simple onsets are aspirated (as in top /tʰɒp/), but in complex onsets they are unaspirated (as in stop /stɒp/). Although English speakers have the ability to pronounce voiceless plosives with or without aspiration when required by English phonology, they often find it difficult to consciously use this ability when learning languages that have phonemic aspiration, such as Hindi.

I have the impression that these segmental pronunciation problems receive lots of attention in second language acquisition research. However, prosody (for example intonation) can also be rather difficult for learners and seems to receive less attention (although there is some research on this topic).

Q: Is there any research on whether segmental differences (such as aspiration) or suprasegmental differences (such as in intonation) are more difficult for learners to overcome? (Controlling for the fact that when comparing languages some have more segmental differences and some more differences in intonation).

3 Answers 3


For learning a language primarily from books, intonation and other suprasegmentals should be the most difficult, simply because non-segmental information is not shown in our writing systems. You can't learn a thing if you have no facts to go on.

For learning a language primarily from the speech of native speakers, intonation should be easiest, because though adults may lose the ability to hear distinctions that are not made in their first languages, we can always hear intonation, because it's so much like music.

Whether this would carry over to suprasegmentals other than intonation is not obvious. I'd guess that it would carry over to vowel and consonant length, at least, since timing is also very prominent in music.

  • I agree; though I suspect adult learners will have their own strategies, based on what they think they're already doing and should be doing. Which means vastly more individual variation than "standard" methods are prepared to allow.
    – jlawler
    Jun 12, 2015 at 15:44

I think it depends on the languages involved, and it depends on the segments and/or suprasegmentals involved. For example, in my experience, Mandarin speakers do well with English word stress; however, French speakers have much difficulty. This may be partly due to the ability of Mandarin speakers' ability to make use of tone in acquiring English stress.

Also, the problems that French speakers have with English word stress also extend to sentence stress: both are notoriously difficult for these learners.

Similarly with segmentals: the status of the sounds in the L1 and L2 play a role. For example, if a sound in contrastive in L2 English, such as the voiced interdental fricative, has an allophonic function, such as in L1 Spanish, it seems to be more difficult to acquire than if it does not exist at all in the L1 (Munoz-Sanchez 2003).

As for pitch contours, in my experience, I have found, for example, that Arabic speakers have much difficulty with English pitch contours; whereas French speakers do quite well.

I think more research needs to be done in this area to provide a satisfactory answer to your question.


The problem with English today, is the fact, Phonetics does NOT teach the correct English sounds. Take the letter "U", in English it has two sounds, it's name "U" pronounced just like the word "YOU", and it's sound "u" like in the words Cup and Sun.
The Correct Proper English letter "U" does NOT have the Phonetic sound of "oo".

Take the word TUNA, pronounced T YOU NA, in proper English! While with the French/American Phonetics it is pronounced TOONA! Which in fact is NOT English!

People being taught Phonetics will never be able to pronounce correct proper English words!
The whole problem comes from the irrelevant Phonetic being taught today!
Phonetics does NOT have paired letter sounds, or syllables.

  • Welcome to Linguistics.SE. What you say may be correct (not all languages are phonemic — actually, none), but this post in no way answers the question, "Is there any research on whether segmental differences […] are more difficult for learners to overcome?" Hence, you need to either refer some academic research or remove the post altogether. Also, I've edited out an obvious rant within, but you may consider re-wording the answer to cool it down further. Jan 30, 2017 at 2:44
  • How do you pronounce the word "prune"? Do you say "pr-you-n", or "pr-oo-n"? Jan 30, 2017 at 2:50
  • You may not know this, but I speak Proper English and I say toona and not tyuna.
    – user6726
    Jan 30, 2017 at 3:06

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