McGill University

Department of Linguistics

Jeffrey Klassen

Ph.D. Oral Defence


Second Language Acquisition of Focus Prosody in English and Spanish

on Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

at 1:00 pm

in the Ferrier Bldg. Rm. 456

followed by a reception in the lounge

The first goal of this thesis is to properly characterize prosodic focus in (L1) English and (L1) Spanish, and to establish to best to way to characterize the differences between the two. We provide data that help choose between two prevailing accounts of prominence, the first which attributes prosodic reduction to low-level activation (Accessibility Theory, e.g. Arnold and Watson 2015), and the second which attributes it to a syntactic operator that requires an antecedent, much like a pronoun (Anaphoric Theory, Rooth 1992, Wagner and Klassen 2015). Our English production data show that native English speakers shift prominence in the sentence according to the contrast that speakers intend to convey, using additional adverbs which are only compatible with certain choices in antecedents. We argue that this can only be accounted for by the Anaphoric Theory. With respect to the differences in prosodic focus marking between English and Spanish (and, tentatively, Germanic and Romance more generally), we show that the crosslinguistic differences can be explained by a syntactic-semantic account: the scope of the focus domain in Spanish must be wide, encompassing the entire speech act, while in English it can scope over smaller constituents (the Spanish pattern of narrow scope has also been found for French (vander Klok et al. 2014)). Additionally, the observation in Ladd (2008) that focus in Spanish must be correctional in nature may indeed be correct, meaning that the interpretation of the focus operator in Romance is also restricted in addition to its scope. What is more, the data show that the differences between English and Spanish focus marking cannot be explained by phonological constraints on phrasing (contra Féry 2013).

Using our L1 hypotheses about the crosslinguistic variation of prosodic focus as a starting point, we form a hypothesis regarding the L2 acquisition of prosodic focus, based on standard assumptions about the availability of evidence in L2 (White 2003). We suggest that English speakers have issues with Spanish prosodic stress shift because its use is constrained to a narrow set of con- texts. Therefore, in order to acquire the specific restrictions (i.e. only corrective contexts), learners must integrate two separate pieces of evidence, or else they may simply posit the existence of two grammars, resulting in optionality. Our production data support this hypothesis. After this, we examine the online processing of English cataphoric prosodic focus by Spanish native speakers–the nature of L2 processing being a debated issue (Kaan 2014). We show that L1 transfer plays a role in L2 processing of prosodic focus; however, beyond the effect of the L1, we do not find evidence for different processing strategies.