Perception and Production of English Lexical Stress by Mandarin Learners of English: Influence of Tones


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date7 Sept 2023


Suprasegmentals such as tone, stress, and intonation convey linguistic information beyond individual segments. Distinct suprasegmentals are observed across languages. For instance, English has stress contrasts that primarily indicate syllable structure and grammatical differences. It is encoded with a combination of vowel quality, pitch, duration, and amplitude cues. Unlike English lexical stress, tonal contrasts distinguish word meanings with pitch as the primary cue in tone languages such as Mandarin Chinese.

The characteristics of phonology in the first language (L1) mentioned above may affect second language (L2) perception and production of English lexical stress by Mandarin-speaking learners of English. In light of this, the current study examines the influence of L1 tonal system on the perception and production of English lexical stress by Mandarin speakers who learn English as a foreign language (EFL). More specifically, it investigates whether Mandarin EFL speakers map English lexical stress to L1 tones in perception and production, how they utilize phonetic cues to perceive and realize English lexical stress, and whether perception accuracy is related to production performance.

Thirty-six Mandarin EFL speakers completed a stress-tone mapping task. They also participated in two tasks for perception of stress placement in English, an English reading task and a Mandarin reading task. A group of 21 native speakers of English took part in the tasks for perception of stress placement and the English reading task. Results of the stress-tone mapping task show that EFL speakers consistently mapped English stressed syllables to Mandarin high-level or high-falling tones. However, there was no clear one-to-one correspondence between English unstressed syllables and Mandarin tones. Some were mapped to the tone in the low register or the neutral tone. Moreover, the results of perception of stress placement reveal that both groups could utilize phonetic cues when perceiving lexical stress. The weighting of cues, however, differed between the two groups.

Meanwhile, acoustic analyses of EFL speakers’ production of English and Mandarin disyllabic words show that they produced English stressed syllables with F0 contours and vowel duration resembling Mandarin full-toned syllables. In addition, acoustic analyses of EFL and NE speakers’ production of English disyllabic words reveal that both groups employed phonetic cues to convey stress location in English. Notable differences, however, were observed in the strategies used to create a contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables. Furthermore, there is no direct relationship between EFL speakers’ perception accuracy and production performance.

The overall findings suggest that, for L1 phonology, Mandarin is a tone language that lacks lexically contrastive stress. The typological difference between English and Mandarin prosodic systems lies in the degree to which pitch information constrains lexical access. Moreover, for speakers of tone languages whose L1 does not have stress contrasts, the influence of L1 phonology on their perception and production of L2 lexical stress is related to L1 tonal system. Besides, the findings are consistent with the Speech Learning Model that English lexical stress is challenging for Mandarin EFL speakers since it was perceptually similar to L1 lexical tones. Furthermore, perception accuracy does not set an “upper limit” for the production performance, as the Speech Learning Model predicted.