A neurolinguistic approach to second language processing of prosody–syntax interfaces

GRF 2023/2024
(PI Yoonsang Song, Co-I Youngah Do, Ouyang Guang and Nan Jiang)
General Research Fund (GRF), University Grants Council (UGC), Hong Kong
Amount: 901,461 HKD

This research explores one of the most understudied research topics in the field of second language (L2) acquisition and processing, namely, the interface between prosody and syntax. Specifically, we first examine whether L2 learners can successfully attain native-like L2 prosody when first language (L1) and L2 prosody fundamentally differ. We further investigate whether successful learners of L2 prosody can utilize prosodic information to facilitate syntactic processing (and thus semantic processing as well) during real-time sentence comprehension.

The current research concerns Cantonese-speaking learners of English, whose L1 and L2 show marked differences not only in prosody per se but also in its interaction with syntax. First, these two languages differ in how prosodic boundaries are formed: Stress plays a major role in prosodic boundary formation in English, but not in Cantonese. Second, they differ in how to prosodically signal major syntactic boundaries (i.e., boundaries of syntactic phrases such as noun and verb phrases): English places phrasal stress before syntactic boundaries, while Cantonese does not, relying on other cues such as pause particles.

These marked prosodic differences between the two languages allow us to explore how successfully L2 learners can overcome dramatic L1–L2 differences in prosody by examining how sensitive Cantonese-speaking learners of English are to English prosodic boundaries and how effectively they utilize phrasal stress for syntactic processing.

The present study employs electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive neuroimaging technique that has been found highly effective in exploring the fine-grained time courses of cognitive subprocesses underlying language processing. We utilize the two most widely used EEG data analysis techniques, namely, event-related potential (ERP) and time-frequency (TF) analysis. In our ERP analysis, we examine the Closure Positive Shift (CPS) ERP component to test our L2 learners’ sensitivity to prosodic boundaries in English (i.e., phrasal stress). In our TF analysis, we focus on increases in power in the low beta and gamma bands of our L2 learners’ EEG waveforms to examine how their L2 sentence comprehension (i.e., syntactic and semantic processing) is facilitated by prosodic information.

The findings of this research will improve our understanding of the nature of L2 prosody acquisition and processing, as well as the interfaces between different subdomains of language in L2. Since L2 prosody has largely been overlooked by the L2 research community, not to mention its interface with other subdomains of language, this research will make novel and rare contributions to theories of L2 processing and acquisition.