Sound and vision blog

13 March 2018

Glottal stops and fluency in non-native English speakers

PhD placement student, Rowan Campbell, writes:

If you’ve been listening to our podcast (Shameless Plug #378902), you just might have noticed that I, the Scottish one, love glottal stops. This is the sound that’s often written as an apostrophe where you would usually see a /t/ – for example, wa’er instead of water. But it actually has its own super-cool symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and looks a bit like a question mark: ʔ

That’s the first of many fun things I could write about the glottal stop, but rather than descending into a clickbait listicle (You Won’t BELIEVE These Seven Facts About Glottals!), I’m going to focus on something interesting that I’ve noticed in the Evolving English VoiceBank: non-native English speakers using glottal stops. Have a listen to these three clips – the first recording is of a young RP speaker, the second is a speaker from Cardiff, and the third is a woman whose native language is Czech.

C1442 uncatalogued female speaker

C1442X5884 Cardiff female (b.1982)

C1442X5843 Czech female (b.1986)

As you can hear, all three speakers use glottal stops, but the main difference is that the RP speaker only uses them before consonants and pauses, where they often go unnoticed:

… opened the biscuiʔ tin, took out a biscuiʔ, brought iʔ back upstairs …

Compare this with the Cardiff and Czech speakers, who replace every word-final /t/ with a glottal stop:

… opened the biscuiʔ tin, took ouʔ a biscuiʔ, broughʔ iʔ back upstairs …

This is something that is now quite common among young British speakers, but we might not expect to hear it from a non-native speaker - the glottal stop is a stigmatised and often-criticised variant of /t/when it occurs between vowels, and as such is not generally taught to language learners.  Presumably, this Czech speaker has noticed the people around her using the glottal stop and has incorporated it into her own linguistic repertoire. But why has she picked up on this feature in particular?

Some recent research on sociolinguistic variation amongst Polish-born teens in Edinburgh suggests that t-glottaling may be a relatively easy native-like feature to acquire. In Sociolinguistics in Scotland (2014), Miriam Meyerhoff and Erik Schleef examine two features that can vary phonologically and sociolinguistically:

  • T-glottaling, or using the glottal stop /ʔ/ instead of /t/
  • Apical (ing), commonly referred to as ‘g-dropping’ – for example, pronouncing the last syllable of ‘walking’ as ‘kin’ rather than ‘king’. These are represented phonetically as /kɪn/ and /kɪŋ/ respectively, as the ‘ng’ sound has its own (also super-cool) phonetic symbol: ŋ

Without wanting to overload you with new terminology, you might notice that these features also vary in linguistic complexity. T-glottaling is only phonological, in that it just requires knowledge of the phonological variants /t/ and /ʔ/. Both of these sounds can easily be substituted for the other at the end of any word. However, to ‘g-drop’ in a native-like manner requires additional knowledge, as not all ‘ings’ are created equal – compare the ‘ing’ in ‘king’ versus ‘walking’.  We can pronounce the last syllable of ‘walking’ as either /kɪn/ or /kɪŋ/, but we can’t pronounce /kɪŋ/ as /kɪn/ without changing the meaning of the word. Learning where we can and cannot ‘drop the g’ requires knowledge of both the phonological variants and the grammatical difference between these two types of ‘ing’.

As such, it’s harder to learn the relevant linguistic constraints for ‘g-dropping’ than t-glottaling, making the glottal stop a great candidate for non-native speakers to pick up – and that could be partly why the Czech speaker’s English sounds very fluent and native-like!