Orthography-induced length contrasts in the second language phonological systems of L2 speakers of English: evidence from minimal pairs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


External organisations

  • Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition and Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research, Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, University of Reading, Reading, United Kingdom;
  • University of Warwick
  • University of Warwick, Warwick, United Kingdom.


Research shows that the orthographic forms ("spellings") of second language (L2) words affect speech production in L2 speakers. This study investigated whether English orthographic forms lead L2 speakers to produce English homophonic word pairs as phonological minimal pairs. Targets were 33 orthographic minimal pairs, that is to say homophonic words that would be pronounced as phonological minimal pairs if orthography affects pronunciation. Word pairs contained the same target sound spelled with one letter or two, such as the /n/ in finish and Finnish (both /'fɪnɪʃ/ in Standard British English). To test for effects of length and type of L2 exposure, we compared Italian instructed learners of English, Italian-English late bilinguals with lengthy naturalistic exposure, and English natives. A reading-aloud task revealed that Italian speakers of EnglishL2 produce two English homophonic words as a minimal pair distinguished by different consonant or vowel length, for instance producing the target /'fɪnɪʃ/ with a short [n] or a long [nː] to reflect the number of consonant letters in the spelling of the words finish and Finnish. Similar effects were found on the pronunciation of vowels, for instance in the orthographic pair scene-seen (both /siːn/). Naturalistic exposure did not reduce orthographic effects, as effects were found both in learners and in late bilinguals living in an English-speaking environment. It appears that the orthographic form of L2 words can result in the establishment of a phonological contrast that does not exist in the target language. Results have implications for models of L2 phonological development.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)577-597
Number of pages21
JournalLanguage and Speech
Issue number4
Early online date18 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018


  • Orthography, phonology, speech production, second language, orthographic effects