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Pronunciation in the context of language revitalization

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Title: Pronunciation in the context of language revitalization
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: A number of studies have documented cases in which sounds in an Indigenous minority language have been replaced by similar sounds from the dominant language (e.g. Babel, 2009; King et al., 2009; Carrera-Sabaté, 2009). The resulting variation in pronunciation is particularly likely to occur when the minority language is learnt as a second language because of first (dominant) language influences (Flege, Schirru & Mackay 2003), and is often perceived negatively by community members (Dorian, 1994; King et al., 2009). To determine whether and how to approach such variation when teaching pronunciation, it is crucial first to document the facts: On the one hand, how is pronunciation likely to vary across speakers, and why? On the other, what attitudes exist among language users towards this variation?

These questions were addressed in a multi-faceted project (see Basham & Fathman 2008). Two studies were undertaken with four different generations of SENĆOŦEN (a dialect of North Straits Salish) speakers - three speakers per generation: elders, younger elders (with varying levels of fluency), teachers, and language learners (young adults).

In the first study, each speaker answered a series of questions designed to have them reflect on their attitudes towards pronunciation - e.g. is there such a thing as “correct” pronunciation, and how important is it in the context of language learning/revitalization? Preliminary results indicate that speakers and learners feel it is important to pronounce words the way their elders do, but that they also acknowledge variation among different speakers and families within the community. Young adult learners respect these differences, and may try to adapt their pronunciation to approximate that of the particular elders they are speaking to.

In the second study, speakers were recorded pronouncing a set of 78 words illustrating the sounds considered impressionistically to be the most difficult. Preliminary results show that in some cases, variation is likely due to English-related influences (e.g. use of /d/ vs. /t’/), as found in Babel (2009) and others. In other cases, variation is due instead to familial/dialectal differences (e.g. use of /tθ’/ vs. /ts’/). Speakers are generally more aware of the latter type of variation than of the former.

Together, this research highlights the need to tease apart different kinds of variation in pronunciation when developing pedagogical materials in the context of language revitalization: familial/dialectal variation can simply be acknowledged, whereas variation (and change) resulting from English influences may warrant further attention.


Babel, M. (2009). The phonetic and phonological effects of obsolescence in Northern Paiute. In J. Stanford & R. Preston (eds.) Variation in Indigenous Minority Languages (pp. 23-46). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Basham, C. & A.K. Fathman (2008). The latent speaker: attaining adult fluency in an endangered language. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 11 (5): 577-597.

Carrera-Sabaté, J. (2009). Affricates in Lheidatá: a sociophonetic case study. In J. Stanford & R. Preston (eds.) Variation in Indigenous Minority Languages (pp. 77-108). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Dorian, N. (1994). Purism vs. compromise in language revitalization and language revival. Language in Society 23: 479-494.

Flege, J.E., C. Schirru & I.R.A. MacKay (2003). Interaction between the native and second language phonetic subsystems. Speech Communication 40: 467-491.

King, J., R. Harlow, C. Watson, P. Keegan, & M. MacLagan (2009). Changing pronunciation of the Maori language: Implications for revitalization. In J. Reyhner & L. Lockard (eds) Indigenous Language Revitalization: Encouragement, Guidance & Lessons Learned (pp. 85-96). Flagstaff AZ: Northern Arizona University.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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