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VOT Study of Somali Developmental Pronunciation

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Background of the Somali Language

The Somali language is a member of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages. The Afro-Asiatic family languages are subdivided into three branches: Northern Cushitic, Central Cushitic and East Cushitic. The Somali language is part of the East Cushitic family, and its closest ancestries are Afar and Oromo. By the same token, the Somali language is divided into three major dialects: the northern dialect, the southern, and the central dialect. The northwestern dialect is the Standard Somali whereas the southern dialect is Benadiri, and the central dialect is Maay maay. The Somali language has been the official language of Somalia from the time when it became a written language in 1972. Although before that, the official colonial languages of the Somali regime were Italian in the south and English in the north. Equally important, Arabic was an influential language due to Islamic influence dating back to the period when Islam spread to Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries. As a result, Arabic was disseminated all over the country. Still, most Somalis cannot speak Arabic though they are able to read and write it, as nearly all Somalis practice Islam and are required to learn the Quran, which is in Arabic.

Statement of problem

It should come as no surprise regarding these pronunciation errors that various Somalis in different proficiency levels of English make. One explanation that is largely driven by these phonation woes is due to the different phonological typology between Somali and English. To put it in differently, it has a lot to do with the phonotactic distribution of the consonantal segments of Somali.  Phonotactic distribution is the study that monitors the taxonomies of segments that are allowed in a language. The segments that are not allowed in that language are considered phonotactic constraints. Consequently, as a result of phonotactic constraints, impressionistic analyses of Somali speakers of English claim that Somalis have difficulties pronouncing some STOP consonants, but not with others.

But at the same time there is no consensus amongst researchers concerning the type of speakers who may have problems with the production of this group of consonants that linguists brand as STOP :([b], [d], [g], [p], [t], [k]), in particular with the [p] consonant. In such case, reaching consensus is critical because the pervasiveness of this anecdotal evidence seems mystifying.To put it another way, how do we know what type of Somali speakers this effect?  Provided that this impacts Somalis in general, consequently, my biliterate polyglot friends including myself whose mother tongue are also Somali would be prime candidates for this evidence. However this is not true, as neither my Somali friends, nor myself are in alignment with this impressionistic evidence. The reason therefore lays in the fact that this manifestation warrants a comprehensive VOT analysis of various Somali speakers in wide-ranging proficiency levels of English with the intention to determine correctly the type of speakers who may have difficulties pronouncing these sounds.

Purpose and background of the study

The study of how second languages (L2) is learned is part of the broader study of a language and language behavior (Gass & Selinker, 2001). With attention to phonology, it is one component of language behavior that is extremely important when studying second/foreign accent.  For one thing, it is the constituent of a language behavior that involves, knowing what sounds are conceivable and what sounds are not in a language.

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