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The Discrimination of English Vowels
by Bilingual Spanish/English and
Monolingual English Speakers
Sandra Levey
Denise Cruz
Lehman College of the City University of New York, Bronx

S

econd language (L2) learners must establish
phonetic categories for new sounds in a new
language or discrimination and/or production
may be affected (Flege, 1987, 1988). One difficulty in theacquisition of the sound system of an L2 may derive from
the differences between the number and the identity of
vowels in the L2 and those in the speaker’s native language. There are also other factors, linguistic and nonlinguistic, that may affect discrimination abilities in
bilingual speakers.

ABSTRACT: The discrimination of English vowel contrasts
in real and novel words by 40 native English and40
bilingual Spanish/English participants was examined, with
novel words representing new words in a second
language. Discrimination was investigated because this
factor is the basis of phonological awareness, although
most practitioners focus on production when working
with bilingual speakers. This study showed an interaction
between bilingualism, vowel contrasts, and novel words.Bilingual participants had greater difficulty with certain
vowel contrasts that were contained in novel words,
whereas native English participants had no significant
difficulty with vowel contrasts in either real or novel
words. The main variables that affected the bilingual
participants’ discrimination were the age of acquisition of
English, the report of problems in communication in
English, andthe overall percentage of time that was
devoted to communication in English.
KEY WORDS: bilingual, vowels, discrimination

162

There are two linguistic factors that may affect Spanish/
English speakers’ discrimination and/or production of
English vowels. The first linguistic factor concerns the
English vowels that are absent in Spanish (i.e., /A /, /ø/, /U/,
/E/, /I /, /œ /, and /O /),which are frequently confused in
discrimination and in production with one another by native
Spanish participants (Flege, 1991). In one investigation,
monolingual Spanish speakers and Spanish speakers with
English as their L2 were presented with the English vowels
/i/, /I /, /E /, and /œ / in the target words beat, bit, bet, and
bat as produced by native English speakers (Flege, 1991).Participants were asked to label the vowels heard in these
words by circling one of the Spanish vowels /i /, /e/, /a/,
/o /, /u/, or “none.” The participants with experience in
English were better able to identify vowels, using the label
“none” more frequently than the monolingual Spanish
speakers (42% vs. 18%). Results also showed that the
vowel /œ / was more frequently identified as theSpanish
vowel /a / by speakers both with and without experience in
English, in spite of the fact that English vowels differ from
their Spanish counterparts by virtue of greater duration
(Delattre, 1966) and more diphthongized production of
diphthongized vowels (Flege, 1989). Production studies also
reveal that Spanish speakers’ English productions show the
substitution of the vowels /a /, /E /,and /e/ for the target
vowel /œ /; the vowels /i / and /e / for the target vowel /I/;
and the vowel /e / for the target vowel /E / (Flege, 1990).
Examples of words that contain these vowels can be found
in Appendix A.
The second linguistic factor that may affect discrimination and/or production concerns the difficulties that both

CONTEMPORARY ISSUES INONTEMPORARY ISSUESSICIENCE ANDDISORDERS • AND DISORDERS 162–172 •31 • 162–172 • Fall 2004 © NSSLHA
C C OMMUNICATION N COMMUNICATION SCIENCE Volume 31 • • Volume Fall 2004
1092-5171/04/3102-0162

native and nonnative English participants face in discriminating among certain English vowels (Flege, 1991;
Hillenbrand & Gayvert, 1993; Hillenbrand, Getty, Clark, &
Wheeler, 1995; Lieberman & Blumstein, 1988; Peterson &
Barney,...
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