Second Language Acquisition: Syntax and Phonology

The issue of globalization has created a favorable condition for people from different linguistic backgrounds to interact as a way of sharing ideas. Due to this aspect of sharing ideas, people are forced to learn languages that enable them to fit into the current world. From the study conducted, Mandarin is considered as an official language in China. Research indicates that many Chinese people decided to learn English language as their second language for easy communication with other people across the world. This research paper investigates the phonological and syntactical features that are triggered from the Mandarin language to the English language when Mandarin speakers acquire English as their second language (Fox & Routh, 2005).

Studies indicate that there is a problem in processing the phonological structures of English language, hence, an issue is worth to be discussed. It has been noted that pronunciation instructions are linked to the instructional methods that are used when learning a language. From the studies, it has been noted that learners who manage to recognize as well as categorize rhyming words are aware of the phonological rime unit. It is indicated that the learners of English language, who learn it as a native language, are more likely to start their phonological process by leaning syllables as a complete set. L1 learners of English language are said to acquire knowledge on English syllables first before learning the phonological analysis (Fallows, 2011).

On the contrary, learners who learn Mandarin language as their first language do not follow the English order, instead, they start learning the lexical part of the language. This makes it difficult for them to acquire the phonology of the English language. For the English speakers, learners understand that writing of a language is similar to the speech when it is at the syllabic level. The syllable is further broken down into syllabic units which are later reduced into phonemes. The issue of spelling and the analysis of phonemes in a word come after acquiring the knowledge of syllabic units that are between the syllables and the phonemes. The issue of phonetic awareness is crucial, since the performance of the English language learners reflects the underlying nature of how phonemes are presented in the English language (Fudge, 2010).

The Mandarin language is a monosyllabic language, since a large number of the morphemes contain one syllable and this makes it easy for Mandarin speakers to acquire English as a second language. However, there are major differences between the two languages that make it hard for Mandarin speakers to acquire English language perfectly (Smith & Wang, 2009).

The two languages differ hugely in terms of syllabic structures. Mandarin is largely known as a language that makes use of the prevalent monosyllabic characters and words as compared to English language which has a large number of polysyllabic and bi-syllabic characters and words. Mandarin is regarded as a language that has a simple syllable structure, whereby CGVC is the maximum syllable structure. The Mandarin language has vowels that serve as the core elements of the syllable, in that the rest of the elements which are after or before the nucleus are considered as optional (Fallows, 2011).

Research indicates that the syllables of Mandarin language have two parts: the initial and the final parts. The initial part of the syllable consists of the syllable-initial consonants while the final part is constrained in relation to the various categories. This structure (Glide, nucleus coda) is quite different from the English syllable, which has the structure of onset nucleus and coda. This makes is possible for the English language to have a variety of syllables that differ from the Mandarin language (Fudge, 2010).

The syllabic constituents of the English language have nuclear parts of the rhyme which contains one or two positions as illustrated in the example given. In the word ‘bid’ the nuclear part of the rhyme has one position, but in the word ‘bead’ the nuclear rhyme has two positions. An English word can consist of three consonant syllable-initiall and a four consonant syllable at the end of the word such as (CCC) V (CCCC). Since Mandarin language lacks this, the learners of English as L2 find it difficult differentiate the two (Fox & Routh, 2005). This makes it hard for a Mandarin speaker who wants to acquire English as a second language to pronounce words like ‘spry’ and ‘pry’.

In the analysis of the intra-syllabic structure, the English language is quite different from the Mandarin language. The Mandarin syllables consist of a zero onset even though the Mandarin consonants can occur as a syllable initially, instead of occurring at the end. For a syllable that has an onset, it can only allow one consonant that it cannot take any extra consonant clusters. This is a clear indication that the Mandarin language does not have two-consonant onsets such as /bl/ in blue, /sh/ in sheet, /pl/ in plural or /sw/ in sweet or three consonant onsets like /str/ in strike, /spl/ in spleen /scr/ in screw or /spr/ in spring (Smith & Wang, 2009).

In relation to rime, there is a range of lexical items that finish with an open syllable and have no coda. But for the syllables which take a coda only sound /ᵑ/ and /n/ can occur as syllables at the end of the cluster such as in [khan] which means to ‘see’ in English, while in English only phoneme /h/ cannot occur as syllable at the end. The English language has two consonant codas like /mt/, /nd/ or /sp/, as well as a three consonant coda such as /lpt/ or /dst/. The rime and onset structures of English language are very complicated as compared to the Mandarin onset and rime structures. Research shows that English language onsets can consist of a zero to three positions as shown in the examples: ear, point, pry and spry (Fallows, 2011).

In the aspect of the phonemic domain, Mandarin language has no voiced phonemes to create the phonetic distinctions as it is in the case of English language. A huge number of Mandarin consonants are voiceless, except a few phonemes like /m/, /l/, /ᵑ/ /z/ and /n/. Aspirated and un-aspirated sounds in Mandarin can exist as independent phonemes instead of occurring as allophones in one phoneme. For instance, the phoneme /p/ can occur as a pair in its own, as compared to the English language, where it can occur as /ph/, /t/ verses /th/. These phonemes do not create any phonemic contrast in the English language (Smith & Wang, 2009).

Analysis shows that there is a noticeable difference in the vowels between the two languages. Studies indicate that due to the limited number of phonotactic possibilities for consonants, the current Mandarin allows a variety of triphthongs (a cluster of three vowel sounds in one syllable) such as /uai/, /uei/ and /iau/. There are also a considerable number of diphthongs like /ou/, /ua/, /ie/, /au/ and /ai/ (Fudge, 2010).

In the research conducted, it has been noticed that Mandarin speakers experience a lot difficulties when learning English as their language due to the triggered features of L1 (first language-Mandarin) to L2 (second language-English). Considering the differences in the phonological structures of the two languages, Mandarin learners find it hard to get the correct pronunciations of the English words. However, the Mandarin learners find it a bit easier to deal with onsets and rime when learning English language (Fox & Routh, 2005).

As per the analysis of the research conducted, it is noted that English learners, whose first language is Mandarin, are unable to identify phonemes which can occur at the begging of a word, at the middle and at the end. For instance the phoneme /d/ can occur in initial, like in the words down and dig, in middle, in words like adding and in final, in words like bad and dad (Fallows, 2011).

It was also noted that Mandarin learners are not able to identify a phoneme, since that it is not easy for them to identify correctly the phoneme constituents in word like ‘beef’ which has three phonemes or ‘dark’ which has four phonemes. It was discovered that a few Mandarin learners experienced difficulties in identifying rime unit, for instance, in the set of the words given: send, end, mind and mend. Only a few were unable to identify ‘mind’ as the word with a different rime unit. Studied indicate that Mandarin learners of English language can perform better in English syllables, fairly in rime and onsets but worse in phonemes (Smith & Wang, 2009).

Mandarin L1 learners display difficulties in acquiring the English phonology due to the phonological analysis as well as the writing systems of their first language, which interfere with the acquisition process. The Mandarin learners are noticed to experience problems in pronouncing words with final clusters of consonants, like in the words ‘goodbye’, ‘spry’ or ‘pry’, despite the fact that they have learnt grammar of the language, whereby there are consonants like /d/, which represents the suffix ‘–ed’. This is so because in the Mandarin language, learners do not pay attention to the phonology of the language, since the phonological information does not contribute to the lexical formation of the Mandarin language (Fudge, 2010).

Studies have revealed that the phonological process of Mandarin language affects the phonology of English during the acquisition process. It has been noted, when learners of Mandarin language acquire the language, they bypass the phonological stage of encoding when reading the characters of Mandarin, since they only use the lexical route when reading, due to the fact that Mandarin characters can be read without coding them phonologically whereby one phoneme is translated at a time (Fox & Routh, 2005).

Fallows (2011) argues that the learners of English language use the reduction strategy when pronouncing words with clusters of consonants at the beginning of an English word. It was discovered that when the learners experience production problems for English consonant clusters, they opt to adopt consonant deletion or vowel epenthesis. These are therefore some of the features of the Mandarin language, that are triggered into the English language and they cause problems to learners who are acquiring English as their second language (Smith & Wang, 2009).

Tone in the Mandarin language is also considered as another feature that is triggered into the acquisition process of English as a second language. The variation in the vocal pitch as one pronounces each morpheme leads to the deletion of some homophones. Homophones, which are pronounced in different vocal pitches, are perceived as different by the ear of a Mandarin language, just as they are perceived by an English native speaker. For example the words ‘pit’, ‘pot’, ‘put’ and ‘pat’ are perceived as different words when pronounced (Fudge, 2010).

Mandarin language has four contrasting tones as expressed in the example given: tone one is high as expressed in words like ‘mother’, whereby ‘mā’ is high, tone two the word ‘hemp’ where ‘má’ rises, tone three the word ‘horn’ where ‘mǎ’ is concave and in the fourth tone like in the word ‘cold’, where ‘má is in a falling tone. It has been revealed that when monosyllables are joined together to form a compound, a tone variation occurs, which leads to the replacement of the underlying tone on the non-initial syllables by a high tone. Some of the functional particles as well as the unstressed syllables are said to be dropped or pronounced in a neutral tone (Fallows, 2011).

In the Mandarin language, the non-initial syllables are always high, while the initial syllables are pronounced as high when the onset is an obstruent and low. It is therefore clear that the tone of the Mandarin language affects the adaptation of English language by the Mandarin L1 speakers, because a predetermined tonal change in an environment of a different tone, which is adjacent, the tone of a word becomes static since it is unchangeable (Smith & Wang, 2009).

The issue of stress in English language is considered as another problem that Mandarin L1 speakers encounter when acquiring English as their second language. In English, one syllable is stressed when pronouncing the words so as to create the intended meaning in the ear of the listener. Once the learner puts stress on a syllable that is not supposed to be stressed, the learner will create a different word in terms of meaning. For instance, the word ‘subject’ has two meanings depending on the syllable that a learner will stress. When stressing the first syllable, the word is used as a noun, but when stressing the second syllable, the word is used as a verb. Mandarin speakers find it difficult to stress syllables in a word because of the tone accent of their L1 as well as the difficulties they have in identifying syllables (Fox & Routh, 2005).

From the analysis, it is clear that the phonological features of Mandarin language are transferrable to the phonology of English and this affects the grammatical functions of the language as well as its pronunciation. It is advisable that the Mandarin L1 speakers, who want to learn English as a second language, should learn the syllabic knowledge first before learning the phonological analysis. It is therefore clear that pronunciation instructions are linked to the instructional methods that are used when learning a language.


Fallows, D. (2011). Experimental evidence of English syllabification and syllable structure. Journal of Linguistics, 17(2), 309–17. Web.

Fox, B. & Routh, D. (2005). Analyzing spoken language into words, syllables and phonemes: a developmental study. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 4(4), 331–42. Web.

Fudge, C. (2010). Syllables. Journal of Linguistics , 5, 253–286. Web.

Smith, N. & Wang, J. (2009). Studies in Chinese Phonology. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. Web.