Use what you’ve got! Phonological bootstrapping in early foreign language production*

A group of 184 4th graders in Germany were presented with a picture story and told to tell the best story that they could in English. All early learners of English as a foreign language (EFL), they had received two hours of formal English instruction per week since 1st grade. Due to participants’ very limited productive proficiency in English, it was anticipated that they would confront lexical gaps in telling their stories. This research examined the ways in which they responded to and resolved those gaps.

Transcriptions of the picture stories showed that the participants reacted to lexical gaps in three different ways: The first group did not tell the story at all or only uttered single, isolated words (16%). The second group used a range of strategies to avoid lexical gaps, including use of synonyms, simple language, repetition of similar items, or use of German words (31%). The third and largest group used a strategy which I term “phonological bootstrapping” (53%) and is the focal point of the present research. When missing an English word, they transfer the German equivalent adapted to the English sound system. In other words, pupils use their knowledge of English phonology in order to cover up lexical limitations.

The adaptation patterns ranged from deletion of sounds as well as substitutions of certain sounds or sound characteristics by a more ‘English-sounding’ alternative. The most common strategies included fronting of vowels (German j/a/gt -> j/æ/gt for English ‘hunt’) and sibilants (German ‚Schwanz‘: /?/wanz -> /s/wanz for English ‘tail’), vowel lengthening/diphthongization (German h/o/ch -> h/ou/ch for English ‘up’) and deletion of final sounds (German ‘Er nimmt’ -> ‘he nimm’ for English ‘he takes’).

Pupils clearly made assumptions about English sounds, which, although not always correct, helped them to increase their discourse fluency. Furthermore, they demonstrated understanding of certain phonological differences between English and German. In some instances, this strategy even helped them come up with the correct English word (e.g. ‘snap’ from German ‘schnappen’).

Interestingly, pupils’ willingness to apply their knowledge of English phonology seems to be so strong that it sometimes overrides cases in which the relevant English word is indeed present in their lexicon. For example, participants’ tended to pronounce German ‘Hund’ as /h?nt/ in English although English ‘dog’ is part of their lexicon (as evidenced by other productions). These results show that, at this stage of foreign language learning, phonological proficiency seems to be ahead of lexical proficiency or at least children’s confidence in the phonological component seems to be more pronounced.

Despite limited formal input, young EFL learners demonstrate an understanding of what English is supposed to sound like and make use of a creative type of “phonological bootstrapping” which can function as a productive resource and compensate for limitations in lexical acquisition.

Teresa Kieseier

*This blog post is a summary of Teresa Kieseier’s findings from her own PhD research. Teresa works as a research assistant on MEG-SKoRe II ( at Universität Mannheim. 


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