The role of orthography in learning a second language: Evidence from Maltese English

Authors: Mitterer Holger

Corresponding: Mitterer Holger (

Keywords: second-language acquisition, quantity distinction, orthography-phonology interaction

Doi: 10.7423/XJENZA.2021.3.09

Issue: Xjenza Online Vol. 9 Special Issue

Research has indicated that the acquisition of a second language (L2), in particular of its phonology, is influenced by orthography. For instance, Bassetti (2017) found that Italian learners of English produce the /p/ in words with a double letter (such as pepper) with a longer [p] than the /p/ in words with a single letter (such as weapon). This indicates that Italian learners are influenced by their first language (L1) orthography-to-phonology rules, where a phonological quantity contrast between short and long consonants is cued as such in orthography. We tested whether this pattern is due to a focus on orthography in most formal L2 education by testing Maltese learners of English. Just as Italian learners, Maltese learners have a quantity distinction in their native language that is coded by single versus double letters. However, unlike Italian learners, the English L2 is used spontaneously outside the classroom, so that acquisition is based less on orthography. The results show that Maltese learners do not make a quantity distinction in English words with single versus double letters. This indicates that earlier results are due to the focus on orthography in formal education rather than an automatic use of orthography in speech processing.

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