Roy. C. Major (2001)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. ix + 211
ISBN 0 8058 3813 9
The cover of this book poses the interesting question of why 'second language learners may master the grammar and vocabulary of the new languages, but almost never achieve a native phonology'. My interest in this question was prompted by a series of one-to-one EFL students I have recently taught who were at a level where improving their pronunciation was no longer a simple matter of improving communication, and yet they were far from satisfied with their progress towards their somewhat undefined goals.
The subtitle of the book is 'the Ontogeny and Phylogeny of Second Language Phonology' and in it the author propounds the Ontogeny Phylogeny Model of the influences of L1, L2 and U on the learner's interlanguage (IL). The symbol U is defined as any influences on the IL that are not L1 or L2. The words 'ontogeny' and 'phylogeny' in the theory's name are words borrowed from biology, and are used here to refer not only to the development of a learner's interlanguage, but to the development of languages in contact with each other. Indeed, the author makes far wider claims for the universality of the model than the book's cover suggests.
The Ontogeny Phylogeny Model simply claims that as a language develops (e.g. phonology in a learner's IL), the influence of L1 decreases, L2 increases and U increases and then decreases. The use of the symbol 'U' shows the influence of the idea of Universal Grammar on the author's model (and in the book he does examine the evidence on markedness that suggests that learners do have access to universal grammar) but the definition of U used means that the theory is not dependant on this. It also means, however, that it cannot provide any insight into the fundamental workings of the system where the results of Universal Grammar and L1 or L2 would be the same. It does however provide a way of presenting research without the need to join this possibly fruitless squabble.
Assuming you accept that L1 has some influence on IL, but that it does not cover all the forms produced that are not L2, the model seems incontrovertible. In fact, it is simply a rewording of the statement I have just made. This can be simply seen by drawing a graph with 2 lines, one that starts at 100% and works down to 0% and the other that simultaneously does the opposite. Now, curve the lines so that at some point they add up to less than 100%. If you draw the line that makes the total up to 100% on the same graph, it will indeed start at zero, peak and go back down to zero regardless of what the axes represent.
At first sight, the author's claim that the same model holds for increases in formality as well as language development over time seems more controversial. Again, however, if we assume that for most learners accuracy increases with formality, we can simply draw the same graphs again.
Clearly, the interest of the model lies in whether the increases and decreases happen in jumps, how quickly the various influences increase and decrease, and what their relative strengths are at various stages and with various aspects of the IL (including where the influence of U peaks). The author makes two claims. One is that with marked forms (i.e. forms which are unusual in languages generally) L2 increases slowly, L1 decreases and then decreases slowly, and U increases rapidly and then decreases slowly. Therefore, 'except for the early stages, the role of U is much greater than L1 compared to less marked phenomena'. In contrast, with similar forms (i.e. similar to the learner's L1), 'the less-similar the phenomena, the more important the role of U is compared the L1'. Repeated explanation, experimental data, personal anecdote and the use of graphics means the model is very clearly explained. The author also fully explores possible variations in different circumstances and the model's testability. Indeed, the author seems to have set up a framework within which such factors can usefully be researched.
I found the claims of the OPM model intellectually interesting, but not of immediate use only as a research tool. For me, the interest of the book lay rather in its overview of research and theories in the field of learner phonology in the first 80 pages. It covers a wide range of different phonological phenomena and a good range of nationalities under the headings 'Preliminaries to Research in Second Language Phonology', 'Linguistic Explanations for Second Language Phonological Systems' and 'Variations'. The first sections deals with factors such as 'Age of the Learner' and 'Levels of Investigation', the second includes headings such as 'Transfer and Contrastive Analysis' and 'Universals of Language', and the third contains 'Individual Variation' and 'Sociolinguistic Variation'. The sections I found the most interesting were those on 'First Language Loss' and 'Dialects in Contact', as these are not often dealt with elsewhere. This part of the book was well written and easy to read, but there was rather an inconsistent policy on the explanation of jargon. Terms which I was familiar with such as interlanguage were defined, whilst I had to reach for a dictionary for a list of 20 or so phonological terms such as 'prevocalic voicing' and 'rhotacism'. This is unfortunate in a book that could easily be of interest to people like myself who are not directly involved in this field.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the book is that it does not even seek to answer the original question on its cover, rather claiming that the OPM model is as relevant for grammar and vocabulary as it is for phonology, and therefore not tackling the question of why foreign accent is more resistant to change.
I found the book to be an interesting and surprisingly light read considering the quite technical subject matter. I would recommend it to people wanting an overview of research in these areas as well as those interested in the possibility of more general models on which to base future research. Although a busy classroom teacher would want to choose carefully which parts of the book to read, I also think it could be of interest to a fairly wide audience.
Central School of English, London, UK
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