Early language perception: from suprasegments to segments
Language is one of the first things that any person experiences and acquires in life. The mother tongue (L1) thus serves as a constant reference in understanding processes, communicative situations with other native or non-native speakers, as well as in the acquisition of other languages. This subsection deals with the acquisition process of the mother tongue at the early language perception stages. The various steps in the perceptual development are given in a chronological order starting from the beginning of life, and are based on the abundant literature on the matter. The objective is not to dwell on how the mother tongue is acquired and thoroughly list the extant studies, but to clarify the order of acquisition of L1 segmental and suprasegmental aspects, and thereby illustrate the major importance of prosody so as to understand the acquisition process of an L2 better.
Language perception starts very early in life, not only when one is born, but before birth. According to Kjellin (1999: 378), “the anatomical development of the auditory system is completed by about the 25th to 27th week of gestation”. It has therefore been suggested that hearing begins from the 25th week of gestation, and it is during late gestation that the human foetus is the most influenced by its sound environment (Mattock, Amitay, & Moore, 2010). The experiment by Querleu et al. (1988) indeed suggests that foetal hearing begins in the last trimester of pregnancy. According to the authors of the study, even though the sounds emitted from the mother are attenuated by up to 30 decibels, the foetus is able to perceive 30% of them. Furthermore, the study claims that intonation, by contrast, is perfectly transmitted, and there is evidence that the foetus begins acquiring features from the voice and sound patterns at that stage, and continues after birth. For Kaplan and Kaplan (1971), however, it is hard to define clear universal stages for early language perception. The previous studies may constitute generalities, but language development depends on individual infants. From birth, the overall pattern that seems to create a consensus is that the acquisition of the L1 suprasegmental system occurs before that of segmental aspects as far as reception is concerned. Newborns first react to intonation, stress, and duration, and it is only at the end of the first year of life that segmentals become more important (Kaplan & Kaplan, idem).
The term motherese refers to the language that parents use to speak to their children from birth. Usually, it contains exaggerated prosody (Kim, Gold, & Scassellati, 2008) and it is the child’s first principal experience with language and interactions. That is why the child is soon accustomed to the prosodic structure of the L1. Kim, Gold, and Scassellati’s experiment shows that infants receive cues about the given vs. new information contrast even before they develop “a concept of states of knowledge between distinct individuals”. Speer and Ito (2008: 91) confirm the infant’s early preference to the L1 prosody:
Infants acquire language from input that is almost entirely auditory, and have been shown to prefer the sound of their native language over others as early as 3 days of age, an effect attributed to their ability to recognize its prosodic form.
The role of L1 prosodic features
From the earliest stages of language acquisition, including perception and production, prosody has a major role to play, just as it does in communication in general (see Section 3), all the more so as the segmental features of the target language are only acquired later.
In adults, L1 prosodic features are necessary to speech production, comprehension, intelligibility, and other linguistic aspects such as syntax and grammar. In their experiment, Cutler and Clifton (1984) measured the reaction time of native English speakers when they listened to disyllabic words in which the lexically stressed syllables had been switched with the unstressed syllables (e.g., can’teen was pronounced ‘canteen). The authors’ goal was to observe the degree of difficulty for the listeners to recognise the target words with these incorrect stress patterns. The results revealed no effect on intelligibility if the stress had been shifted from right to left – which corresponded to the common 10 stress pattern in English –, but there was an impact on intelligibility when the stress had been moved from left to right – corresponding to the less frequent 01 stress pattern –, and it was even more considerable in the case of a change of vowel quality (e.g., ‘wallet /ˈwɒlɪt/ pronounced [wɒˈlet]). These findings suggest that when prosody has an impact on segmental features, deviations can also have a significant impact on intelligibility. In the same respect, Nakatani and Schaffer (1978) study the role of prosody in the proper comprehension of a message through its grouping function. Native listeners heard nonsense utterances that prosodically mimicked an adjective + noun sequence (e.g., ma mama produced with the same prosodic pattern as new result). Listeners managed to accurately divide the phrases into words (i.e., ma plus mama, corresponding to new plus result), suggesting that prosodic features such as the stress pattern, the rhythm, and the pitch in the phrases were used as tools for parsing and facilitated speech comprehension.
In the case of young children acquiring an L1, the importance of suprasegmentals is also significant, even at the early stages of language acquisition. According to Darwin (1975), prosody plays a dynamic role in speech perception, because it helps the infant direct his or her attention to a particular speaker, as well as to the most informative parts of the speech that he or she hears. Speer and Ito (2008) also claim that children amply use prosody as an organisational device in L1 comprehension and production, hence a mapping between prosody and other linguistic aspects. While the main role of prosody is the segmentation of the speech stream into sentences and the signalling of the linguistically relevant units, it has also been suggested that children acquiring an L1 use prosody to discover the syntax of the target language (Crystal, 1970; Gerken, 1996). Indeed, albeit not perfect, the relation between prosody and syntax is important and may be established by children in their first years of life. Similarly, Crystal (idem: 79) argues that suprasegmental aspects are necessary to “understand the earliest stages of the development of grammatical competence”, even though prosody has often been claimed to have a mere affective or attitudinal function, rather than a grammatical one, in early L1 perception and production.
As a conclusion, the prosody of the mother tongue plays a crucial role both at the perception level and the production level, from the earliest stages of language acquisition to everyday communication situations. It is one of the first linguistic aspects that are acquired, which is why it has an influence on the acquisition of other aspects of language.
Conclusion: from L1 to L2 acquisition
Whether during the early language perception stages starting from intra-uterine life, or in the first vocalisations such as babbling, human beings are first and foremost influenced by the prosody of the mother tongue (Konopczynski, 1990). The acquisition of the L1 stress patterns, melody, or rhythmic structure systematically occurs before the acquisition of segmental features, syntax, or grammar, making the L1 prosody the most firmly settled linguistic element in human speech (Alazard, Astésano, Billières, & Espesser, 2011).
As Werker (1995) points out, infants are universal listeners, but also universal speakers because they are capable of perceiving and producing all the sounds that can be found in any language, even in their early non-speech productions (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1971). Johnson and Reimers (2010: 45) thus remark: “any normally developing child is capable of mastering any one of the thousands of languages of the world equally well, within a relatively short period of time, without any instruction”. In fact, the language-universal ability disappears quite soon after birth, as the influence of the L1 phonology becomes pervasive (Albright & Hayes, 2011). Hence, infants’ capacity to discriminate among languages is especially present during the first six months of life, when they begin to develop phonological categories, whereas their production abilities can still cover non-L1 forms up to the age of four years (Jusczyk, 1992). Consequently, as the child grows up, the sensitivity to L2 forms gradually declines, as is noted by Mattock, Amitay, and Moore (2010: 297):
Adults’ sensitivity, contrary to that of infants, is practised, fine-tuned, and optimized for perceiving only the acoustic differences between speech sounds that are significant for making distinctions between words in their native language.
Table of contents :
TABLE OF CONTENTS
LIST OF FIGURES
LIST OF TABLES
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
2. THE ACQUISITION PROCESS OF ORAL ENGLISH
2.1. FIRST LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
2.1.1. Early language perception: from suprasegments to segments
2.1.2. The various stages of production
2.1.3. The role of L1 prosodic features
2.1.4. Conclusion: from L1 to L2 acquisition
2.2. SECOND AND FOREIGN LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
2.2.1. Language acquisition: interlanguage, interference, and errors
2.2.2. The acquisition of L2 segmentals
2.2.3. Is native-likeness attainable?
2.2.4. The acquisition of L2 suprasegmentals
2.2.5. Towards a stronger importance of prosody?
2.3. L2 TEACHING AND LEARNING
2.3.1. Acquisition and learning
2.3.2. A review of L2 teaching approaches
2.3.3. Should prosody be prioritised?
2.3.4. Towards an integration of research findings into classroom practices
3. FRENCH SPEAKERS AND ORAL ENGLISH
3.1. DEFINITIONS AND PRELIMINARIES
3.1.1. Terminology and disambiguation
3.1.2. Transcription systems
3.2. ENGLISH AND FRENCH: TWO DIFFERENT PHONOLOGICAL SYSTEMS
3.2.1. Suprasegmental features
3.2.2. Syllable- and stress-timing theory
3.2.3. Segmental features
3.2.4. Summary: on the role of prosody
3.3. INTERFERENCE, ERRORS, AND THE IMPACT ON COMMUNICATION
3.3.2. Prosodic errors
3.3.3. Segmental errors
3.3.4. Is the impact of prosodic errors stronger?
4.2. EXPERIMENTAL PROTOCOL
4.2.1. Pilot study
4.2.2. Revised study: participants and method
4.3. PRODUCTION TESTS
4.3.1. Stimuli and evaluation methods
4.3.2. Analyses and hypotheses
4.4. PERCEPTION TESTS
4.4.1. Stimuli and evaluation methods
4.4.2. Analyses and hypotheses
4.5. GENERAL DISCUSSION