Monday, 12 September 2011

tonicity again

My recent trip to China furnished further evidence, if evidence were needed, of the failure of many NNSs of English to master the part of English intonation that concerns tonicity (focus marking, the location of the nucleus — blog, 15 October 2009).

One of the poster papers at the ICPhS made the tentative claim that the focus in Mandarin Chinese is well marked, with ‘post-focus compression’ of the pitch range identifying it clearly despite all the lexical tone in the utterance; but that in Cantonese Chinese it is not.

This chimes in with the limited experience I have of intonation in Chinese English. Whereas those whose first language is Mandarin seem on the whole to locate the English nucleus correctly, those who are speakers of Cantonese often do not.

In Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong, as you might expect in a former British colony, there are many NNSs whose English is really excellent. But there are also many who struggle to a greater or lesser extent. Our tour guide on the afternoon excursion to the sights of Hong Kong island, whose English was very fluent but not very good, drew our attention to “the Jockey Club on your right-hand side | and a cemetery on your left-hand side”, so violating the rule about avoiding placing the nucleus on a repeated item. (He also pronounced number as ˈlɐmbɐ etc., which was very confusing at first.)

As we all know, it’s not just the southern Chinese who have this problem in English intonation. Our flight home was with Air France. The cabin attendant reciting the pre-takeoff drill reminded us that “the safety instructions are in the seat pocket in front of you”.

Does nobody teach French learners of English that they should not accent pronouns except for contrast? All NSs of English would say “…the seat pocket in front of you”.


  1. Nope, nobody does. And in globish there's nothing to teach.

  2. Apparently, natives are outnumbered by non-natives, so it's we who get it wrong, not them. How dare we impose our norms on them...

  3. Some say 'globish', some say English as a Lingua Franca.

    The easiest counter attack is that if you don't learn native-speaker-like English you won't learn to write. But with pronunciation that doesn't work. I think teacher from now on will have to make an explicit contract with students, based on the non-linguistic social consideration as to how much they want to blend in with native speakers in conversation.

    After all, within living memory students were assumed to wish to blend in with the upper reaches of English of England society in conversation. That changed, so why not the native-speaker-like target?

    Looking at things from the other end, how far do native speakers expect foreigners to comply? Yes, there are features that can make foreigners sound rude, but having corrected those we can be more relaxed with pronuciation 'errors' that are socially acceptable.

    I once asked a large group of Black South African students how they wanted a stranger to perceive them on the phone — as White natives speakers or as educated Black second-language users? It was a rhetorical question. The answer — in the form of a smile of recognition — was unanimous.

  4. I studied English in French schools for some 6 years (as second foreign language, but still). In my experience, there is extremely little emphasis on pronunciation and stress. I think most French learners do not realize that stress (be it lexical or intonational) is something they have to worry about. I'm pretty sure the flight attendant wasn't taught that he shouldn't accent the pronoun, but that's almost irrelevant: he would raise the voice at the end of the clause whatever the word, and it's quite likely he was never taught not to.

  5. Ad David Crosby

    Re your Black South African students: sorry, I am not getting it. What DID they want to be perceived as? I am curious, or, as the Dutchman says, 'benieuwd'. I personally prefer to be perceived as a foreign learner---not necessarily very much 'ejookaytid'---of all foreign (to me) languages I more or less succesfully (try to) speak; but that's probably an idiosyncrasy.

    Concerning John's French flight-attendant, I should think that was not so much his stress-related ignorance (he might well have learnt and known the rules by heart)as his inability to bring French (the last syllable, always) stress patterns under control. Happens to everyone every now and again, native patterns of this or that creep in and show up... especially in a stressy situation.

    I once knew a French professor, a man of genius some say, who could not suppress the French ultima-rule, and while he frequently said that another man of genius, called Fodor (FODor) had said certain things for a definite reason, this sounded like: thereFORE foDOR (dairFAWR fawDAWR)... charming, ain't it? With the French 'r'. Why should we want people suppress and extirpate such things.

  6. @ Wojciech -"Happens to everyone every now and again, native patterns of this or that creep in and show up... especially in a stressy situation.":
    I entirely agree with that.

    As regards "I personally prefer to be perceived as a foreign learner" and "Why should we want people suppress and extirpate such things.":
    I have often observed that when a foreign French or English speaker comes up with a native-like Spanish accent, girls here usually look at him/her with hungry eyes!

  7. David Crosbie,
    Wonderful good sense. It took me most of my teaching life for the penny to drop, but when I was a VP in Japan I rather shamefacedly tried to negotiate such a contract with students as you propose. I stressed that the point of it was that they should feel free to be absolutely frank, but they didn't believe me, and gave the answers they thought I wanted. Then they went on as before, mostly pretending to be asleep, so as not to be "picked on", and as for learning to write, the only difference it made to their writing was that the increase in rubbing-out left even less of it.

    I think Japan may be an extreme case of this sort of reaction to the idea, but obviously English as a Lingua Franca is a cop-out. What it seems to be saying now that it claims to be a discipline is that it's some sort of distinct option, in which "correct", "incorrect", and frankly incompetent forms and expressions are themselves valid options. So that the ELF brand of descriptivism, observing erratic use of these various forms and expressions, and concluding that any use of the "correct" ones is evidence of knowledge of them, argues that therefore non-use of them is free choice between free variants rather than mere forgetfulness. This sounds to me more like empty dogma than honest descriptivism. Can it not at least say that knowledge and use of the correct form should be encouraged until such time as all distinctive function has been lost wherever English is in use, so that learners do have a better chance of learning to write?

    I thought John had had something to say about ELF before, and found it in his blog for Tuesday, 25 May 2010. A Singaporean heroically commented of John's specimen of it that it was simply bad English.

  8. Wojciech

    Re your Black South African students: sorry, I am not getting it. What DID they want to be perceived as?

    As educated, Black, fluent, second-language speakers of English. (Their first languages were mostly but not exclusively Zulu.)

  9. Ad Beatrice Portinari

    'I have often observed that when a foreign French or English speaker comes up with a native-like Spanish accent, girls here usually look at him/her with hungry eyes!'

    Sorry Beatrice, I am probably intelligence-impaired or simply dumb, but I am not gedding this either, as little as I got David's previous point about the SA Blacks.

    Is the speaker you mention English or French, and is he speaking (with a Spanish accent) Spanish, i. e. in such a way that the girls (are they Spaniardesses or something else?) can't hear he's French or English and think he's Spanish? Or is he speaking his native idiom, English or French, with a Spanish accents, so that the girls think he is a Spaniard speaking that language? Which ever?..

    I once heard a Portuguese speaking Spanish with a heavy heavy Portuguese accent; it sounded truly charming, sweet. After a while I started wondering if there was any difference between Portuguese and Spanish with Portuguese accent... Well, probably subtleties like 'bom' and 'bueno', or 'calle' and 'rua'.

    Once in Rome I was asked by a couple of French tourists about a street (directions); they thought I was Italian and imagined that 'rua' was 'street' in Italian... (rue in French). This 'rua' again sounded truly Portuguese.

    Swedes again sometimes think that Danes speak Swedish with a German accent (an extremely heavy one).

    Generally, it is my observation that languages adopt various 'accents' as their standard ones under the influence of neighbouring languages, if more powerful than themselves. Romantsch sounds very much like Swiss German, Lithuanian like Byelorussian and Polish (rather than like cognate Latvian, which again sounds rather Finnish), Sorbian sounds German... . Strangely, phonetic patterns of not just native languages but also second languages if of higher prestige and in a sense domineering prevail over the 'true' phonetics of a lesser tongue. I have heard Poles speaking Polish with an English accent (e.g. heavily aspirating their prevocal t's, p's and k's) after a period in England.

  10. @ Wojciech:

    Sorry about that, you're right -and in any case all those foreigners were really handsome. Nothing to do with accent, I think now. And it's true I like people speaking Spanish with funny accents (I just meant that when a foreigner speaks your own language with perfection, that must be because they took a lot of trouble on your account, and I think that that deserves some sort of, possibly sexual, gratitude).

  11. Ad Beatrice Portinari

    Good gracious, amazing. You're taking me into labyrinths of lingustic sexuology far beyond my ingenuous being that I am...

    I thought at first: now it's clear why Leporello sang: 'Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre' --- Don Giovanni must have spoken accent-free Spanish... but then I realised that D. G. was a Spaniard himself... well... must've been for some other reason.

  12. In Hong Kong, most NNS of English are Cantonese. They usually mispronounce "Language centre" and "English teacher" (a teacher who teaches English) by placing the nucleus at the penultimate, instead of the first, syllable.

    Surprisingly, it seems that most non-native English teachers in Hong Kong are not even aware of the existence or the concept of nucleus placement.

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  14. I'd rather hear a French flight attendant stress the last pronoun, than hear a native speaker attendant stress the prepositions: IN the rear, TO the nearest exit, etc., etc.
    Regarding neighboring languages sounding alike, while I certainly believe in Sprachbund phenomena, perhaps you have to NOT know the languages to get the full effect. I more or less know Lithuanian and Belarusian, and they don't sound alike to me.