Stress and Intonation Patterns Thesis

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Cultural Intonation

Cultural differences in stress and intonation patterns as they relate to overall language processing and acquisition

Language is arguably the most essential and recognizable cultural identifier. The communicative value of language far exceeds that of the simple meanings behind words used; information is transmitted through syntax, word stress, and intonation by methods that are highly mediated by the culture of both the speaker and the listener. Recent and ongoing research has shown that the differences in intonation and stress patterns from language to language and culture to culture correlate to subtle differences in the brain's development and processing of language, beginning even in pre-linguistic infants. This suggests culture and language, far from being limited to external and conscious factors of differentiation and recognition, also enter into an early internal dialogue that shapes the very rbains of individuals within a given culture.

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The fact that native speakers of different languages, and even to a degree speakers of the same language from different cultures, recognize and utilize different stress and intonation patterns is well documented. So, too, has the stress pattern and intonation recognition of pre-lingual infants, suggesting that language processing is an early step -- perhaps one of the earliest -- in the formation of a cultural identity within an individual. The exact relation of the cognitive skills and abilities to process and show a preference for one language over another in infancy to overall cognitive development has also received some attention, but as of yet there is no study whose purpose is connecting the early elements of language acquisition to overall cognitive and cultural development. This paper attempts a preliminary understanding of the issue.

Background

Thesis on Stress and Intonation Patterns Assignment

Language is one of the key mechanisms for the transmission of cultural models -- for understanding others' ways thinking, perceiving, and relating to others and the surrounding environment (Bonvillain 2007). These cultural models include such macro components as mythologies and religious beliefs, as well as far more subtle micro components that not only allow for the transmission of cultural models via language, but actually influence the shaping and recognition of language in a culturally unique way (Bonvillain 2007). That is, every culture has a worldview that differs in subtle yet very real ways, and this is both reflected in and reinforced by that culture's use of language. Both allowances for certain word variations and "missing" concepts or terms from a culture's language provide readily apparent examples of these cultural differences, but there are more common and pervasive differences that are arguably more telling.

Word stress and intonation patterns are unique to every language, and even to every culture/subculture's use of a given language. The English spoken by a native Texan, for instance, is markedly different from that of a Minnesotan, despite using almost entirely the same vocabulary and grammatical structure. Continuing research is beginning to suggest that notable differences in cognitive processing of native and foreign stress patterns is observable within the first six months, long before infants exhibit any linguistic ability (Frederici et al. 2007). In addition, there is some evidence which suggests overall cognitive function and perception may be affected by differences in the cognitive processes of language acquisition and verbal pattern recognition in pre-linguistic infants, which are known to exist along cultural lines (Frederici et al. 2007; Hohle et al. 2009).

Strangely, despite the increasing attention paid to language in both biological medical and sociological fields, the differences in the sounds produced by different languages/cultures has received very little study (Bonvillain 2007). The differences in sounds produced are highly important within specific cultures as well; there are many known instances of gender differentiation and class distinction based on pronunciation and the pure availability of various phonetic sounds and units to a given sub-set of a culture (Bonvillain 2007). Both intra- and intercultural sound differences have been shown to have a neurological and cognitive basis with effects observable neurologically in infancy that are socially and culturally expressed via language usage and acquisition ability well into adulthood (Ngyuen et al. 2006).

The link between the cognitive and cultural aspects of intercultural linguistic differences, specifically stress and intonation differences, has received little scholarly attention as yet (Arciuli & Slowiaczek 2007). Though each of these aspects of language has received a fair amount of attention independently, a cohesive study of the various linguistic phenomenon that serve as cultural markers and transmitters has yet to be undertaken. Stress pattern and intonation differences have been noted in regards to their relation to perceptions of other cultures, as well as in their effects upon language acquisition skills later in life with strong implications for the cognitive differences created by early language development, but the link between the two remains a missing yet vital part of understanding language's full implications (Laroche et al. 2009; Zhang et al. 2008).

Literature Review

Studies concerning specific intercultural linguistic differences and intracultural idiosyncrasies are widely varied, and it can be difficult to draw broad conclusions from a synthesis of so much disparate information. There are enough common strands in many of these studies to begin to draw a tenuous link between the cultural and cognitive aspects of language acquisition and differentiation. In a study of word and syllable stress in the final words of spoken syntactical units in American English, Turk & Shattuck-Hufnagel (2007) found that final word stress is closely related to the main-stress syllable. Their most significant finding was the inconsistent differentiation medial stresses in words falling between the main stress syllable and final word/syllables which suggested that the automatic cognitive processes influencing word stress and pattern recognition is more complex than current models account for, necessitating reevaluation of language development (Turk & Shattuck-Hufnagel 2007).

A cross-cultural study conducted by Zhang et al. (2008) found similar issues at work in native Mandarin speakers and their ability to both recognize and reproduce stress patterns in spoken English. The researchers noted that the basic elements used to distinguish stressed and unstressed syllables were the same for both native Mandarin and native English speakers, but that the levels of emphasis and attention placed individually on these elements was different among the two culture (Zhang et al. 2008). Furthermore, the Mandarin speakers exhibited great difficulty in reproducing certain stress patterns, with the study suggesting that these difficulties arose largely from differences in the general stress patterns of Mandarin and English, as well as from the different et of available vowel sounds (Zhang et al. 2008). Recognition of stress patterns as an early part of cognitive development could result in the learning difficulties.

Nguyen et al. (2008) came to significantly different conclusions in their study of both beginner and advanced Vietnamese speakers of English when compared to native Australian speaker. The most salient difference between the findings of Nguyen et al. (2008) and Zhang et al. (2008) was the utilization of certain acoustical aspects in recognizing and repeating stress patterns in spoken (Australian) English. While Vietnamese speakers utilized three of the same four criteria noted in Zhang et al. (2008), timing contrast was virtually non-evident in beginning speakers (Nguyen et al. 2008). Advanced speakers also showed difficulty in performing accurate reproductions of the time contrast aspect of stress in spoken Australian English, but showed a definite use of the acoustical manipulation (Nguyen et al. 2008). This suggests a larger degree of cognitive adaptation than described in Zhang et al. (2008) (Nguyen et al. 2008).

Chapman (2007) strikes something of a middle ground between Zhang et al. (2008) and Nguyen et al. (2008) in his examination of discourse intonation and the practicality of teaching English intonation and stress patterns to Japanese students. Over a ten-year period of teaching and study, Chapman came to the conclusion that certain aspects of intonation and stress recognition can indeed be learned, even when the acoustical variations used to denote such differentiation in the target language are not present or are not emphasized as fully in the native language of speaker (Chapman 2007). Other aspects of intonation and stress usage were too subtle to be practically taught to most students, suggesting a malleable but partially static cognitive process (Chapman 2007). Though his study was limited to Japanese students of American English, Chapman asserts that his findings are applicable more broadly (Chapman 2007).

Suggestions that the processing of language and the malleability of the cognitive mechanisms governing its processing and acquisition later in life are somehow related to other cognitive processes are found in a recent study of six- to eight-year-old native Spanish speakers (Gutierrez-Palma et al. 2009). In an experiment that required the reading aloud of polysyllabic words and pseudowords, Gutierrez-Palma et al. (2009) determined that stress sensitivity was a primary factor in reading fluency. This has much broader implications as to the effect of stress and intonation recognition on overall learning ability and other cognitive processes, which according to this study might not only shape how but also how well things can be learned or communicated across cultures and in non-native languages (Guttierez-Palm 2009).

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