Acquisition of Prosodic Marking of Information Status by Mandarin-speaking EFL Learners


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date4 Sep 2019


Prosody plays an important role in spoken communication. It contributes to highlighting focus and downplaying the less important information. However, the availability, extent and means of prosodic marking of information status vary across languages. In English, prosody is the major means of information status marking: focuses, broad and narrow alike, are marked with prominence, while given information is deaccented. Furthermore, prominence triggered by broad focus is usually predictable according to grammatical categories and semantic meaning. In Mandarin, by comparison, prosody plays a supplementary role to syntax in focus marking. When communicative need for prosodic devices arises, narrow focus is realized with prominence and given information deaccentuation, but broad focus shows no predictable prominence pattern as in English.

The above-mentioned differences between English and Mandarin may affect the acquisition of prosodic marking of information status by Mandarin-speaking adults who learn English as a foreign language (EFL). In light of this, the current study explored such EFL learners’ acquisition of four abilities including perception, comprehension, production and awareness of prosodic marking of information status in English. More specifically, we examined if these four abilities develop with English proficiency, to what extent and in what order the learners acquire these four abilities, and in what ways these four abilities are interrelated. We were especially interested in the impact of typological markedness in these learners’ acquisition. To this end, we derived a markedness scale of prominence for information status based on Zerbian (2015a) and tested the assumption of Structural Conformity Hypothesis that the more unmarked is learned better and earlier than the more marked.

We recruited 80 university-level learner participants with varying proficiency levels and 20 native English speakers as a control group. They participated in four tasks that aimed at evaluating the corresponding abilities respectively. Results showed that the learners’ perception, comprehension and awareness all improved with their overall English proficiency. The auditory and acoustic analyses of the recordings from the production task showed that the learners’ performance in both prominence placement and phonetic realization of prominence improved with their overall English proficiency, and phonetic realization developed faster than prominence placement. In general, the learners performed comparably to the native speakers in perception, comprehension, and awareness, but worse in production even at the advanced stage. At the advanced stage, the learners acquired all four abilities for narrow focus but not for broad focus or given information, suggesting that the typologically more unmarked form is acquired earlier and better than the more marked forms. Their four abilities followed different developmental patterns, suggesting the roles of different factors in addition to markedness. In addition, the four abilities, all in strong positive correlations, developed in sequence, with perception and comprehension preceding awareness, which in turn preceded production. We conclude that the learners’ acquisition of prosodic marking of information status largely conforms to the Structural Conformity Hypothesis and put forth pedagogical implications based on our findings.