Perceptual difficulties with English consonants and vowels

The next speaker in our research seminar series this semester is our colleague Alex Ho-Cheong Leung. Alex is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Northumbria.

The talk takes place in person at 11am on Wednesday 24th November 2021 in room 205 in the Squires Annexe building

The talk is titled ‘Perceptual difficulties with L2 English clusters and short vowels: Implications for pronunciation teaching and learning‘. There is an abstract below.

You can find directions to the campus and a campus map here:

We will also be streaming the talk for people who would like to attend that way. For the link to join, please email Billy Clark:


Research has demonstrated that second/ foreign language (L2/FL) learners often struggle with the production of consonant clusters. It is common for learners to employ various simplification strategies including, deletion, substitution, and epenthesis in the production of clusters that are either absent or more complex than those in their first language. For example, it has been reported that some Spanish learners of L2 English epenthesise (i.e. supply extra materials) to break up clusters resulting in “espain” while attempting to pronounce “Spain”. It is worth asking whether non-target like production of clusters such as the above can be attributed to difficulties in perception. In fact, L2 speech research have started to explore the notion of “perceptual illusion” where participants report perceiving “phantom” elements that are not actually present in the speech stream.  

This presentation reports on a study that investigated English consonant clusters and short, unstressed vowel perception of 70 Arabic-, Mandarin-, Spanish-speaking foreign language learners and 19 native English speakers. Results from an AX-discrimination task show that participants misperceive stimuli containing consonant clusters and counterparts where clusters are broken up by epenthetic/prothetic elements. In light of these findings, we encourage a reconsideration of the balance between focusing on production and perception in pronunciation instructions. Despite advances in L2 speech research which demonstrates the close link between production and perception, materials written for popular consumption continue to rely heavily on “traditional approaches” which place a strong emphasis on “accurate production” at the expense of the perception domain.  

Keywords: consonant clusters; illusory vowels and epenthesis; perceptual illusion; second language perception; short vowels and schwa

Information Uniformity in Linguistic Planning

We are delighted to welcome Rachael Bailes, from Newcastle University, as the first speaker in our research seminar series this semester.

The talk takes place in person in room 205 in the Squires Annexe building

You can find directions to the campus and a campus map here:

We will also be streaming the talk for people who would like to attend that way. For the link to join, please email Billy Clark:

Rachael works on language evolution, cognitive science and social cognition. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher on the ESRC funded project ‘Constraints on the Adaptiveness of Information in Language (CAIL)’ at Newcastle. You can find out more about Rachael’s work at:

The title of Rachael’s talk is:

‘Information uniformity in linguistic planning: form and function for noise resistance’

The abstract is below.

The talk is open to all. For any queries, please email Billy Clark:

The full programme for this semester is at:

. . .


In this talk I’ll summarise two recent studies conducted with colleagues on the project `Constraints on the Adaptiveness of Information in Language (CAIL)’, which involves using information theory to analyse language and its cognitive scaffolding. 

Following Fenk and Fenk (1980, see also; Fenk-Oczlon, 2001), we suggest that information uniformity in linguistic planning represents an adaptation to noise resistance. We further suggest that language exhibits particular strategies for noise resistance that may be unique. Specifically, linguistic elements may be ordered across the whole utterance so as to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic communication failure in the presence of noise.

First, we demonstrate that more uniform ordering of elements confers functional noise resistance with a simulation study that compares the preservation of information in different distributions under conditions of noise. Second, we use historical corpus data on English and Icelandic to show that information uniformity is specifically and actively preserved by linguistic planning across time, unperturbed by structural language change. Taken together, this evidence suggests form and function for noise resistance in language, and the talk ends with some brief discussion about the future directions of this work. 

Fenk, A., & Fenk, G. (1980). Konstanz im kurzzeitgedächtnis-konstanz imsprachlichen informationsfluß. Zeitschrift für experimentelle und ange-wandte Psychologie,27, 402.

Fenk-Oczlon, G. (2001). Familiarity, information flow, and linguistic form. Typological Studies in Language,45, 431–448.