Unravelling the complexities of intonational learning and transfer in second language speech

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Linguistics and English Language

Abstract

An important aspect of speech is intonation, i.e. the variation of pitch while speaking. Not only does intonation play an important role in conveying meaning, it also provides the listener with information about the speaker, including aspects of their identity (such as gender or age), affective state (whether the speaker is happy, sad, etc.), and social status or class. It is well known that languages differ in intonation, so that intonation is sometimes referred to as the melody of a language. Since a good deal of the impression we derive about speakers depends on the way we use pitch in speech, such language-specific differences may cause considerable misunderstanding between speakers from different cultural backgrounds and many stereotypes associated with different social groups or communities may in fact stem from them. It is therefore important to establish what the basis is of cross-language differences in intonation, and how they are realised by L2 learners with an L1 which differs from the target language in some properties of intonation. From a scientific point of view, establishing this tells us about how languages are learned and stored, and how the L1 and L2 interact with one another. On the practical side, if we can gain a basic understanding of which properties of intonation are susceptible to transfer from the L1, it would eventually allow improved language courses and improve cross-language communication. For example, the relatively flat and low intonation of German learners of English may make them sound 'bleak, dogmatic or pedantic, and as a result, English listeners may consider them uncompromising and self-opinionated' (Trim 1988, as quoted in Grabe 1998), an example which illustrates that impressions based on intonation may lead to ill-founded stereotypes about national or linguistic groups.

This fellowship will support the completion of a series of research articles in peer-reviewed, international journals, which address the question of cross-language differences in intonation and how they are produced by L2 learners. Intonation can be varied in a number of ways: through variations in its inventory of intonation patterns; the way these patters are realised (e.g. are they produced in a high register? Or are they rather flat?); their frequency of use (which pattern is more commonly used?); and their use to signal intonational function (e.g. to highlight parts of an utterance, or to distinguish statements from questions). The series of articles will explore L2 intonation along these dimensions of intonation, and establish which cross-language differences are more susceptible to transfer from the L1 at different stages of proficiency. Findings will be publicised by means of a workshop, conference presentations, and presentations to users (such as the L2 learners themselves).

Planned Impact

This research aims to fill important gaps in our understanding of cross-language differences in intonation, how they are produced by L2 learners, and the nature and extent of interaction in intonation between learners' first and second language. As such, our study will inform academics in a variety of disciplines and subdisciplines, including phoneticians, phonologists, researchers in second language acquisition, applied linguists, language teachers, and teacher educators.

Beyond academia, this research will ultimately have an effect on a number of individuals: language teachers, teacher educators, interpreters, the second language learners themselves, and parents of children who are growing up acquiring more than one language. By communicating the findings of this research to these individuals outside my discipline, I will draw attention to a possible source of miscommunication between speakers from different cultural and language backgrounds and make them aware of the fact that many stereotypes associated with different social groups or communities may in fact stem from cross-language differences in pronunciation. Although language teachers, language learners and interpreters might be aware of difficulties in cross-language communication, they are unlikely to have in depth information as to the exact nature of how intonation may affect this, and which dimensions of intonation need to be adapted in order to improve it. Pinpointing the aspects of intonation that are difficult for learners will help the learners themselves, and will help educators to improve teaching methods. It may also help parents who are raising their children bilingually to point these out to their children, and it may help interpreters to improve some of the non-lexical aspects of their translation. The press and general public have already expressed an interest in these possible sources of cross-language miscommunication, as preliminary results of this research have already featured in the press ('Scientists lend ear to friendliness of voices', Scotland on Sunday) and Mennen has been interviewed by BBC Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' about stereotypes associated with the use of pitch in cross-language communication and sources of cross-language miscommunication.

Publications

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Ineke Mennen (Speaker) Pitch range and intonation in the perception of foreign accent in L2 Prosody Workshop, Bangor

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Ineke Mennen (Speaker) The nature of transfer in the production of pitch range by German learners of L2 English in International Symposium on the Acquisition of Second Language Speech (New Sounds 2013)

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Ineke Mennen (Speaker) Fundamental frequency range and intonation in the perception of foreign accent in British Association of Academic Phoneticians Colloquium, Leeds

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Mennen I (2014) BEYOND SEGMENTS Prosody in SLA in Studies in Second Language Acquisition

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Mennen I (2014) SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION OF PITCH RANGE IN GERMAN LEARNERS OF ENGLISH in Studies in Second Language Acquisition

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Mennen I (2012) Cross-language differences in fundamental frequency range: a comparison of English and German. in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

 
Description The main objectives of this Fellowship was to publish a series of research articles, in order:
1. to gain an understanding of the basis for cross-language differences in intonation and how these are reflected in adult L2 learners
2. to gain an understanding of the nature and extent of transfer of L1 structures and phonetic routines at various stages of proficiency
3. to lay foundations for further work looking at the implications of the findings for theories of L2 speech learning

These goals were met and were published in the series of publications listed. In particular, it was found that Intonation can vary cross-linguistically in a number of ways: through variations in its inventory of intonation patterns (structural dimension); the way these patters are realised (e.g. are they produced in a high register? Or are they rather flat?), the realisational dimension of intonation; their frequency of use (which pattern is more commonly used?), the frequency dimension; and their use to signal intonational function (e.g. to highlight parts of an utterance, or to distinguish statements from questions); the functional dimension.

Deviations from the native norm were observed in all dimensions of intonation produced by second language learners, but were more frequent in the realisational, frequency and functional dimensions of intonation.
Exploitation Route One of the outputs of this Fellowship was a book chapter where a model of second language intonation is proposed, entitled LiLT. We hope this will be used by others to test to what extent this model can be supported by data from second language learners at various stages of proficiency. Ultimately, this could lead to improvements in second language pronunciation teaching.
Sectors Education

 
Description It is too early to see whether/not findings have been used, particularly as some of the journal and book articles have only just appeared or are about to be published. Early indications from the number of views and downloads of some of the publications from ResearchGate are that these articles are frequently seen/read by other academics. It is therefore envisaged that they will be used in future, in particular to test a proposed model of L2 intonation learning.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Apo pou eisai : how pronunciation can reveal your language background 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Invited paper presented at the Department of Language and Literature, University of Patras, Greece (24 May 2011)

Resulted in invitation for another presentation elsewhere
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Beyond L2 segments: towards an L2 Intonation Learning Theory (LILT).  
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited seminar presented at the Linguistic Diversity Management in Urban Areas (LiMA), University of Hamburg (Germany)

This resulted in a request to submit this work to a book on Prosody in Contact
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Beyond segments: A look at new or neglected approaches in L2 speech research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Invited Plenary, Language Learning Round Table, EuroSLA 2012, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan

More visibility of research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description How pronunciation can reveal your language background 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Invited paper presented at the Department of Language and Literature, University of Padova, Italy (10 March 2011).

Further collaboration with academics at Padova Uni
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Pitch range and intonation in German learners of English. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Invited talk presented at the Linguistic Diversity Management in Urban Areas (LiMA), University of Hamburg (Germany)

It directly resulted in an application for a visiting researcher to come to work with the PI for a period of 9 months, which in turn resulted in a PhD application.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Second language intonation : theory, practice, and the way forward 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Invited paper presentation at the Department of Linguistics and Phonetics

Further collaboration with staff at Uni Lund
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
URL http://www.sol.lu.se/current/calendarEventsBySubject.html?subjectId=45&type=guest_lecture&expand_men...
 
Description The realisation of f0 range in L2 speech: phonetic routines and linguistic structure 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Invited key-note address, Methods in L2 Prosody (ML2P) Workshop, University of Padova

Postgraduate students applied for PhD study with me
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Theoretical and practical issues in intonation research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Invited paper presented at the Department of Language and Literature, University of Padova, Italy (10 March 2011).

Resulted in an invitation for a plenary at a conference the year after, and collaboration with an academic there.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Where are you from? : how pronunciation can reveal your language background 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public lecture presented at the Public Lecture Series

Requests from public for more information
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
URL http://bilingualism.bangor.ac.uk/public_lecture.php.en?catid=&subid=8381