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Native and non-native differences in producing and processing contrastive focus: ‘native’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’

  • Ellen Broselow
29 January 2019
P.N. van Eyckhof 1
2311BV Leiden


This talk reports on studies investigating differences in the processing and production of English contrastive focus by native speakers of English and native speakers of Mandarin. The processing study, which builds on earlier work establishing that English speakers make anticipatory use of contrastive prosody in processing (e.g., Ito et al., 2008), used a visual world paradigm to investigate two questions: (i) whether L2 English speakers of Mandarin use English prosodic cues similarly to native English speakers; and (ii) whether the two groups are able to use prosodic cues independent of segmental information.  Participants heard a context instruction (e.g., Click on the purple mittens) followed by an instruction of the form Now click on the ADJ NOUN (e.g., scarlet mittens/purple necklace), where either the adjective or noun was spoken with L+H* contrastive pitch accent, and the prosody was either helpful (L+H* on new information) or unhelpful (L+H* on given information). In half the instructions, the adjective and noun portions were low-pass filtered to provide prosodic but not segmental information.  In the production study, participants completed an interactive game in which they directed experimenters to decorate objects, producing sentences containing contrasting noun phrases in which either the adjective or noun was contrasted (e.g., Andy wants an orange diamond on his towel and a NAVY diamond/orange OVAL on Mindy’s towel).

Differences among the two L1 groups emerged in both studies. In the processing study, while both groups made use of adjective-focus prosody to choose a prosodically appropriate target object even in the absence of segmental information, the English speakers were more likely to use noun-focus prosody in their choice of object than the Mandarin speakers. In the production study, in contrast, the Mandarin speakers were actually more consistent than English speakers in using pitch cues to contrastive focus on nouns. While the Mandarin speakers generally showed the expected peak on the focused noun, English speakers frequently showed the pitch peak on the adjective, with a steady decline throughout the noun. We argue that the ES’s failure to realize an L+H* pitch accent on focused nouns reflects their use of innovative intonation patterns which have been noted particularly among younger female speakers, in which sentence final position is associated with vocal fry (Wolk et al. 2012). Thus, the non-native speakers’ productions were actually closer to the description of canonical English contrastive noun focus, although they were less likely to use this canonical noun focus prosody in their processing.

Reference: Ito, Kiwako & Shari R. Speer. 2008. Anticipatory effects of intonation: Eye movements during instructed visual search. Journal of Memory and Language 58. 541-573. Wolk, L., N. B. Abdelli-Beruh and D. Slavin (2012). Habitual Use of Vocal Fry in Young Adult Female Speakers. Journal of Voice 26. e111-e116.

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