Martin Schweinberger et al.

Martin Schweinberger, Nina Stedman, Jelena Buzuk, Sabrina Sarkodie-Gyan, Naomi Boye

(University of Hamburg)

Assessing differences in the English vocalic systems of L1-German learners and native speakers of English

This talk presents first results from the Vowel Chart Project (VCP) – a project funded by the Lehrlabor Lehrerprofessionalisierung (L3Prof) – which provides L1-German speakers of English with personalized vowel charts. The vowel charts visualize similarities and differences in the English vocalic systems of learners and native speakers of English. The aim of the project is to provide students with feedback on where their pronunciation of English vowels differs from native English speakers and which vowels have been acquired accurately.


Students participating in the VCP are asked to fill out an online questionnaire which assesses socio-demographic parameters, the course of study, information of student’s language background and language use, and motivational aspects of language learning. Subsequently, participants are recorded using the audio analysis software PRAAT. The recordings contain a word list consisting of 28 test items and 75 fillers (each word being repeated three times) and a read-aloud short story. The formant values of target vowels in /hVd/ and /pVt/ environments are extracted and plotted against reference values from native speakers. The formant values of participants and native speakers are analyzed statistically using clustering methods as well as fixed- and mixed-effects regression models that assess the significance of factors and the strength with which these correlate with target language similarity. This analysis is intended to help understand which factors contribute to native-like pronunciation and which factors are irrelevant to achieving native-like pronunciation by German learners of English. The factors under investigation encompass e.g. the age when a participant started learning English, motivational aspects relating to language learning, and the time spent in an English-speaking country.


First results show that for German learners of English fail to distinguish between English /e/ and /æ/ which indicates that German learners of English have difficulties to differentiate between vowels that are allophonic in German but phonemic in English. Furthermore, German learners deviate from native speakers in the production of English vowels which are similar – yet different – to German vowels. To elaborate, high from vowels (/i/ sounds) are substantially more fronted and thus produced “too clearly” by L1-German speakers compared to native English speakers. As expected vowels which are functionally and acoustically similar in both languages are acquired with a high level of acoustic accuracy (e.g. /u/-sounds).


In addition to presenting the VCP and first results stemming from the project, the talk discusses potential future applications of the VCP such as expanding the project to schools in order to complement the assessment of student’s production of English by teachers and to provide objective feedback for students to diagnose aspects of English pronunciation which require additional attention. Finally, the talk explores possible collaborations with other philological and educational institutes and universities.