Sinologists in Bydgoszcz

Grace Chen-Hsiu Kuo

Topic: Perception of Prosodic Prominence and Boundaries by Nonnative Speakers

Nonnative speakers’ acquisition of a foreign language is heavily influenced by the learners’ native language and their foreign language learning experience. Like learning phonemes and phonological rules, nonnative speakers must learn to perceive the fine prosodic differences and establish a new system of stress, rhythmic patterns and intonation when they learn the prosody of the foreign language. The two key issues in the system are prosodic prominence and prosodic boundaries and the acoustic measures relevant to these issues include duration, intensity, pitch and voice quality.

Nonnative speakers’ acquisition of a new sound system is often influenced by the cognitive, social, and psychological factors. Among these factors, the ones emphasizing individual differences have gained growing interest in foreign language development. Working memory and autistic traits are of interest here in that (a) working memory was found closely related to foreign language acquisition, and (b) disordered prosody was found to be a feature of impaired communication, and general population with higher level of autistic traits tended to perceive prosody differently from those with lower level of autistic traits.

There are two goals in this study: (a) to examine the correlations between the acoustic measures and the nonnative speakers’ judgements of prosodic prominence and boundaries, and (b) to discuss the correlations between the perceptual results and the measures of working memory and autistic traits.

A group of nonnative English speakers in Taiwan (N=85) were asked to complete two questionnaires (i.e., the autism-spectrum quotient questionnaire and the working memory questionnaire) and participate in a Rapid Prosody Transcription Task in which they were required to make speeded identifications of prominent words and locations of prosodic juncture. The auditory material was a political speech (“Weekly Addresses” recorded by Barack Obama) transcribed previously for prosodic events using the ToBI (Tones and Break Indices) conventions by trained phoneticians. The results demonstrated that nonnative speakers attach different weights to different acoustic measures in their perception of prosodic prominence and boundaries. Moreover, while neither of the individual difference measures correlate with nonnative speakers’ prosodic boundary perception, working memory seems to be more useful than autistic traits when it comes to their perception of prosodic prominence.