It has long been acknowledged that second language learners have difficulty producing sounds that do not occur in their native language. One example of this is the difficulty distinguishing between r and l sounds for Japanese nationals learning English as a second language. This paper will look at the research history behind Japanese perception of r and l, and suggest ways that it can be further tested.
Human speech is capable of a wide range of sounds known as phonics. However not all of these sounds are the same in every language. It is a well documented fact that adult learners of second languages will have trouble learning phonics that do not occur in their native language. Difficulties arise not only in the production of second language phonics, but also in the perception of these phonics (V. Hazan et al ., 2005).
Among English as a second language learners, one of the most prominent examples of this is the Japanese difficulty in distinguishing between English r and l sounds. This is because neither of these sounds occurs in Japanese. There is a liquid consonant in Japanese that is usually written in English translation as an “r” (for example in such words as “samurai,” “Hiroshima,” “Rashomon” et cetera.) However in the native Japanese accent this sound is actually somewhere in between the English r and l sound (Guion et al., 2000). Therefore Japanese speakers have great difficulty correctly pronouncing r and l sounds in English words.
Although this phenomenon has long been informally observed, it was tested by Hiromu Goto, in 1971, who found that not only were native Japanese speakers unable to correctly pronounce r and l sounds, but also that they were unable to distinguish the sounds even when enunciated clearly by American voices (Goto, 1971), indicating that both production and perception of r and l sounds presents problems for Japanese learners.
Since this time, many studies have been done exploring both Japanese production and perception. What is the relationship between the two of them, and under what conditions can they be improved?
Much of the work in particular has been done on perception. In part, this is because it is easier to test perception, particularly when testing large number of participants simultaneously. But it is also because perception testing may be a more accurate way of testing the participants’ knowledge. It has been argued that many learners of English feel that their accent is part of their individual identity, and can be reluctant to switch to a received pronunciation (Jenkins, 2000). And at least one study confirmed this among some Japanese learners of English (Benson, 1991).
In tests conducted in the early 1990s, it was shown that it was possible to improve Japanese perception of r and l sounds through training by asking participants to identify a sound, and then giving them immediate feedback on whether or not it was correct. However even after such training, none of the participants reached native level competence ( Lively, et al. 1993). And, although the exact relationship between production and perception is still unclear, it has been shown that Japanese participants exposed to such training will have a corresponding positive effect on pronunciation (Bradlow et al., 1997).
However another area of interest was under what conditions perception improved naturally. Several studies focused on Japanese students living in the United States, and found that they showed improved perception over Japanese learners who had little to no contact with native speakers.
One study found that Japanese learners who had frequent contact with native English speakers performed much better on perception tests than Japanese people who did not (MacKain et. al, 1981). Another study found that Japanese adults who had lived in the United States for an average of 21 years identified r and l sounds more accurately than those who had only been in the United States for only 2 years (Flege et al. 1996).
One such study, published by Aoyama et al. in 2003, tested the perception of 16 Japanese adults (and their children) living in Texas. The participants were tested twice, one year apart, on their perception of r and l. The first testing was after the participants had been living in the United States for an average of 0.5 years, the second testing was at an average of 1.6 years length or residence. It was found that the perception of the Japanese children improved dramatically between the first and second test, but the Japanese adults’ perception did not improve significantly (Aoyama et al., 2003).
Besides age, length of residence in a foreign country, or exposure to native speakers, there are also a few other factors which may influence accurate perception of r and l. There is also evidence that familiarity with the word being spoken helps aid perception, even with Japanese people who have had little experience living abroad (Flege et al. 1996). And several tests have shown that Japanese speakers will be more likely to correctly identify a work containing r than l in perception tasks (Bradlow, 1997).
When discussing the results of improved perception over time in Japanese nationals living abroad, it is important to establish control groups with students learning English as a foreign language in Japan. And when testing Japanese EFL students, it would be interesting to see if their perception changed at all during their 6 years of English study.
Japanese students begin studying English in the first year of chuugakko (which is often equated with the American term “junior high school”). All Japanese students must by law complete 3 years of English education in the junior high school as part of their compulsory education. Japanese high school (kotogakko) is not technically part of the government mandated compulsory education, but in an educational society like Japan it is increasingly becoming assumed that most students will continue on, and almost all of Japanese students graduate from high school. Japanese high school graduates will have completed a total of 6 years of English education.
Because these English classes are mostly taught by Japanese nationals speaking English as their second language, it has been widely assumed that the students’ pronunciation and perception of l and r will not improve during this time. And indeed, studies of Japanese perception with Japanese participants living inside Japan show that even University graduates perform little better than chance on perception tests (see Goto, 1971, among others).
On the other hand, studies such as Aoyama et al., 2003 indicate that Japanese adults, who have completed 6 years of English education in Japan, start out with statistically significant higher perception than their children who had not yet started English education in Japan. (Although while living in the United States, the children later quickly catch up and surpass their parents by the time of Aoyama et al.’s second testing.)
It would be interesting to see if there was any, even a slight, change in perception at all during these six years of English study. And, especially in light of studies indicating lexical familiarity aids in perception (Flege et al., 1996) it would be interesting to see if perception accuracy increases on certain words which are more likely to be known to a sixth year English student than a second year English student.
It is more than possible that this test will not yield any interesting results, and will simply confirm the conventional wisdom that r and l perception is not learned at all in the Japanese school systems. However either way these two groups will act as an important control against the other groups of participants.
Contrasted against Japanese students in the traditional Japanese school system, it would be interesting to see if Japanese people attending weekly classes taught by native English speakers acquire any advantage in regards to perception.
Finally, it would be interesting to compare these two groups against Japanese people living abroad in an English environment.
This last test would in some ways be a duplication of studies which have already tested the perception of Japanese nationals living abroad, such as the above work of Aoyama, et al. However the variables in the study will be adjusted slightly.
The participants in Aoyama et al.’s study had a mean age of 39.9. This study will seek to examine younger adults, those here in Melbourne as international or exchange students (18-22) or on a working holiday (under 30) to see if the age variation results in any significant differences.
Also, Aoyama et al.’s adult participants came over to the United States with their Japanese families, and were married with children. Since people with families often have less time for socializing outside the home, it might cut down on their exposure time to English. Young unmarried Japanese people living abroad might socialize more with native English speakers, and might acquire the perception skills with more accuracy. And students especially studying in Melbourne will have lots of exposure to English. Indeed, at the end of their study, Aoyama et al. acknowledged that one of the reasons their adult participants might have shown little improvement in perception was because they might have had limited chances to speak English. As Aoyama et al. noted, the children went to school every day and received a constant stream of English input, where some of the Japanese housewives might not have received this input.
Finally, Aoyama et al.’s test, and most other tests of Japanese perception to date, took place with participants living in the United States. This study will seek to test Japanese students living in or around Melbourne, Australia, which has its own unique accent and culture which might further influence the results.
1. During the course of their normal scholastic education in Japan, do Japanese students learning English exhibit any significant improvement of perception of R and L? And if so, is this increased perception related to lexical familiarity?
2. How do Japanese students studying at English conversation schools taught by native speakers compare to Japanese students solely studying in the public schools?
3. Do Japanese young adults living in Melbourne exhibit an improved perception of rand l compared with Japanese students who have never been abroad?
4. Among the Japanese living in Melbourne, does fossilization occur over time in their perception abilities?
The first two comparative tests will involve Japanese students studying in public schools. Any students who have spent significant amounts of time abroad or who receive private English classes from native speakers will be excluded from the test.
Because first year English learners in a Japanese junior high school start out with zero knowledge of the alphabet, it might be premature to ask these complete beginner students to discriminate between different English words. By the second year, however, basic spelling and phonics should, in theory, be learned. So the first test will be conducted with second year English students in a Japanese junior high school.
These tests will be compared against a second group of students studying either in a Japanese high school, or a Japanese university. (The latter being preferable depending on access.)
The third group will be students attending private English schools taught by native English teachers, but who have not lived outside of Japan.
As this group consists mostly of individuals rather than whole classes, access to statistically significant participants might be a problem. But where ever possible, care will be taken to match both the age of these students and the length of their instruction period.
The fourth group will be Japanese people studying in Melbourne or doing a working holiday.
All participants will be tested using minimal word pairs focusing on the differences between r and l. For example: light and right, or lock and rock. (For a complete list of minimal pairs, see the instrument included in the appendix.)
The pairs will be arranged in two columns, one under the R column, another one under the L column. Each pair will be numbered. The participants will circle the word that they think they hear.
Participants will listen to a native speaker read out different words, and then write in the blanks provided either an r or and l depending on what word they think they hear. The native speaker will read the words in a pre-arranged order that will be the same for the initial tests in all 4 groups.
Before testing the students, the reader will first pilot test this instrument on other native speakers to certify that the pronunciation is discernable by the standards of native speakers.
All the groups in Japan will only be tested once. The fourth group, living in Melbourne, will be tested three times at two-week intervals to determine if their perception during this time remains consistent, and to test for either improvement in, or fossilization of, perception. Because this last group will be tested multiple times, the order of words read aloud will change between tests.
All the results from individuals will be collected, and analysed together in their respective groups.
For each group, the amount of correct answers will be averaged.
It will be assumed that by chance each group will get 50% of the questions right. Therefore group results at or around 50% will be seen as not having any perception of r-l discrimination.
The junior high school second year learners will be the baseline against which all other groups will be compared for improvement. (It is anticipated that this group will have scores at or around 50%.) Groups average test scores will be compared against each other using an independent t-test.
In testing for the effect of lexical familiarity on perception, each individual minimal pair number will be looked at separately. If there appears to be a difference in percentage correct between groups for a particular minimal pair, a chi-square test will be run to confirm significance. These words would then be compared to the vocabulary that a high school English student in Japan is likely to know.
In addition to between groups t-test, a dependent t-test will be run to compare the multiple tests on taken by the Japanese group in Melbourne
Limitations/ Anticipated Problems
There are some severe limitations on the generalizability of the first test. One classroom, in one city, can not be generalized to all of Japan. Even though the Japanese education system is famous for its highly homogenous national curriculum, there is still no way to account for the variation produced by individual teachers. Some Japanese teachers of English themselves have pronunciation that is little better than their students. Others have, through study or travel abroad, managed to acquire an accent that is close to native like.
It might be possible to take this variation into account by testing the perception and accents of the teachers themselves. However, this would only account for the class’s current English teacher. In larger Japanese schools the English teacher for each grade, and often for each class with a grade, would be different. In order to take into account the cumulative effect of 6 years of English education, all the teachers who had contact with the class would need to be tested. Because the educational board transfers teachers from school to school every year, it would be difficult to track down all the past teachers.
In addition to the teacher’s individual accent, there is also the teacher’s use of additional audio visual materials. The textbook manufactures often include CDs, and videos with the textbook (usually featuring native speakers modelling correct pronunciation) which some Japanese teachers might use more often than others.
And, since the beginning of the assistant language teacher (ALT) programs, many schools even make use of a native speaker who will occasionally assist in the English class.
The advent of the assistant language teacher program, which began in the 1980s, and came into wide use in the 1990s, means that many young Japanese students are getting more input from native speakers then they did 30 years ago. And it might mean that tests on Japanese perception, such as Goto, 1971, or even more recent tests, have now become outdated. And it represents yet another reason why it might be interesting to take another look at the perception of Japanese learners in Japan.
However at the same time it represents another variable in the students’ educational history that might be difficult to accurately account for. Between schools, and often even between different classes within schools, there is much discrepancy between the frequency of the ALT’s visits, and the amount of actual teaching time the Japanese teacher is willing to allot to the ALT during these visits.
Because it is impossible to accurately account for all these variables, the results of this study will clearly not be generalizable to all classes and all situations. The most it can hope to do is to disprove one or the other extreme position, and thus perhaps establish a parameter around which future studies could build. If there was no significant improvement, it would be established that it is possible in at least some cases for a class of Japanese students to receive 6 years of English education and to show no improvement in their perception of R and L sounds. Conversely a significant increase in perception would show that in at least some cases it is possible for perception to improve in classroom education alone.
Another variable will be the particular native speaker who reads out the words. Every person has their own peculiar accent, voice, and reading style. Japanese listeners might find one native speaker’s voice easier to discern than another’s. Even within the same person, when reading through a list of words at different times it is likely that the pronunciation, stress, or volume would be slightly different between one reading and another.
If one single recording was made and used for all the different tests, it would add more internal validity to this project. However, in so much as the voice of the single native speaker used to make the single recording might not represent the pronunciation of all native speakers, there would still be the problem of external validity.
Also, as with any test involving listening, the quality of the device used to play the sound recording, the volume at which it is played, and, in particular, the location and the background noises inherent to that location are all factors that it might not be possible to control for. But in so far as it is possible, care should be taken to minimize background noises and make the volume level consistent.
This study will seek to improve understanding of how Japanese perception of the English consonants r and l are acquired. Building on previous research, it will seek to answer if perception can be acquired naturally, or if it requires training. And if this perception can be acquired naturally, the study will examine under what circumstances it can be acquired. Can perception simply be acquired in the English classroom in Japan? Or does regular contact and private instruction from a native English speaker make a difference? Or can this perception only be acquired living in an English speaking country? And if so, for how long? And does perception steadily improve during the time spent the English speaking country, or does fossilization of perception set in at some point.
It is hoped that a better understanding of all these questions can be reached through this proposed study.
Because confusion of r and l sounds is one of the major frustrations for both Japanese students and their English teachers, determining under what conditions perception is best acquired is useful for pedagogical reasons.
Because of the shy nature of many Japanese students, it has long been a pedagogical dilemma over how and when to correct pronunciation. Teachers are often afraid to over-correct their pronunciation for fear of making the students overly self-conscious. On the other hand, there is the fear that letting repeated pronunciation errors go unchallenged will lead to fossilization. Therefore, in as much as perception is related to production, it is useful to better understand the conditions under which perception is acquired. Is it simply enough for a teacher to model correct pronunciation for their students, or does more active intervention need to take place? Because this study also examines Japanese students studying in Melbourne, it will also be useful for ESL teachers as well as EFL teachers.
Aoyama, K., Flege, J.E., Guion, S.G., Akahane-Yamada, R., and Yamada, T. (2003). “Perceived phonetic dissimilarity and L2 speech learning: the case of Japanese /r/ and English /l/ and /r/,” J. Phonetics 32. 233-250
Benson, M.J., (1991). “Attitudes and Motivations Towards English: A Survey of Japanese Freshman.” RELC Journal. 22. 34-48
Bradlow, A., Pisoni, D., Akahane-Yamada, R., and Tohkura, Y. (1997). “Training Japanese listeners to identify English /r/ and /l/: IV. Some effects of perceptual learning on speech production,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 101, 2299-2310
Hazan, V., Sennema, A., Iba, M. and Faulkner A. (2005). “Effects of audio-visual perceptual training on the perception and production of consonants by Japanese learners of English.” Speech Commun. 47, 360-378
Flege, J., Takagi, N., and Mann, V. (1996.) “Lexical Familiarity and English-Language Experience Affect Japanese Adults’ Perception of /r/ and /l/,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 99, 1161-1173.
Goto, H. (1971). Auditory perception by normal Japanese Adults of the sounds “l” and “r”. Neuropsychologia 9, 317-323
Guion, S.G., Flege, J.E., Akahane-Yamada, R., and Pruitt, J.C. (2000). “An investigation of current models of second language speech perception: The case of Japanese adults’ perception of English consonants.” J. Accoust. Soc. Am. 107, 2711-2724
Jenkins, J. 2000. The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lively, S. E., Pisoni, D. B. (1991). “Training Japanese listeners to identify English /r/ and /l/. II: The role of phonetic environment and talker variability in learning new perceptual categories.” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 96, 2076-2087
MacKain, K., Best, C., and Strange, W. (1981). “Categorical Perception of English /r/ and /l/ by Japanese Bilinguals,” Appl. Psycholing. 2, 369-390
APPENDIX: Draft Data Collection Instrument
Please circle the word that you hear.
1. rock lock
2. grass glass
3. lake rake
4. right light
5. red led
6. road load
7. arrive alive
8. correct collect
9. fire file
10. froze flows
12. more mole
13. grade glade
14. cram clam
15. raid laid
16. rip lip
17. ride lied
18. rim limb
19. reef leaf
20. ray lay
21. rack lack
22. root loot
23. rate late
24. room loom
25. row low
26. rook look
27. rot lot
28. read lead
29. race lace
30. fresh flesh
Grade 70 out of 100.0
Comments: This is a fairly interesting topic but an underdeveloped proposal. The lit review is too brief and is missing crucial information about the target phonemes, especially a full articulatory description. You'll need to have a look at the relevant literature in phonetics, and the Sem. 2 subject "English phonetics & phonology" will also be helpful. You should also reflect more on transfer, particularly phonetic transfer.
As to the design, testing the group in Melbourne in 2-week intervals is not likely to render any meaningful results because the time is to short for them to develop. I would recommend dropping this longitudinal component from the study.
In the analysis section, I don't quite understand what you're planning to do with chi-square. The limitations section is also far too long and rambling. The references are not APA style. Overall, it's also not clear what the significance of the study is but more phonetics background might help you embed it in a larger theoretical concern.