Speech Learning Mechanism

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SLM (Flege, 1995, 2003) is based on the assumption that the speech learning mechanism remains intact across the life span. It predicts that adults retain the ability to acquire new phonetic categories in their L2, contrary to the notion of a “critical period” (Lenneberg, 1967; Penfield & Roberts, 1959). However, the acquisition of L2 speech sounds depends on the perceived cross-language phonetic distance and the state of development of the L1; thus, in this view, the L1 acts as a template or filter at the early stages of L2 acquisition. A crucial assumption of SLM is that L1 and L2 phonetic subsystems are not fully separated and that L2 speech sounds may be judged to be instances of L1 speech sound categories. SLM attempts to explain how speech perception affects L2 phonological acquisition by distinguishing two kinds of sounds: “new” and “similar.” New sounds are those that are not identified with any L1 sound, while similar sounds are those perceived to be the same as certain L1 sounds. In this view, a process of “equivalence classification” hinders or prevents the establishment of new phonetic categories for similar sounds. The L1 system becomes attuned to just those contrasts of the language that are meaningful in the L1, so the system becomes resistant to the addition of new categories. L1 and L2 sounds are posited to exist in a shared system.
Therefore, SLM predicts that when a new phonetic category is established for an L2 sound that is close to an L1 sound,
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