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Open Access Publications from the University of California

VOT merger and f0 contrast in Heritage Korean in California


Recordings of read speech in Korean and English were made by native South Koreans and Korean Americans of varying generational status (“second-generation” American-born or “1.5-generation” foreign-born) and analyzed for differences in usage of VOT and fundamental frequency to contrast production of Korean lenis and aspirated stops and affricates. The speech was then played back to listeners of Korean heritage and judged metalinguistically regarding proficiency in Korean and other attributes relevant to the speech and demographics of immigrant speakers. Results show that second-generation Korean speakers, especially females, are not showing the collapse of VOT contrast found in the other two groups, one part of the “tonogenetic” sound change nearing completion in Seoul. Female second-generation speakers are also not using f0 to differentiate between the stops to the extent that first- and 1.5- generation speakers are. These second-generation speakers were easily identifiable as having been born in the United States, but the correlation with their generational identification and use of VOT and f0 to contrast lenis and aspirated stops and affricates is mild. It is concluded that because second-generation Korean Americans vary in their production of Korean, there is no clear sociophonetic marker for a Korean American “variety” of the language. The most proficient second-generation speakers closely resemble native speakers and do demonstrate the tonogenetic sound change, but the least proficient second-generation speakers diverge from this norm in a variety of ways. Second-generation Korean American speakers are easily identifiable as not speaking in the same way as native South Korean speakers, although this does not hinge on their use of the f0 contrast. The analysis makes a stronger case for applying new models of language acquisition, speech production, and identity formation to heritage language speakers that differ from those used for bilingual speakers.

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