Processing focus prosody in a second language: Does musicality help?

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Processing prosody in an L2 remains a challenge even among highly proficient L2 users [e.g. 1, 2]. However, studies have related musical skills to a refined perception of prosody in both native and foreign languages [e.g. 3, 4]. We investigate whether these benefits extend to the processing of contrastive focus prosody by Dutch adults with English as an L2. Both Dutch and English use pitch accents to signal focus, and L1 listeners use this cue to predict upcoming information [5, 6]. However, Dutch and English differ regarding the weighting of prosody, and although advanced Dutch learners of English perform on a native-like level on the offline comprehension of English contrastive focus [7], they show difficulty in using prosodic cues during online processing [2, 6]. In our proposed eye-tracking study, participants will listen to sentences with only, in which the placement of a pitch accent on the direct or indirect object disambiguates the sentence meaning, e.g. I only gave COFFEE to Peter, I didn’t give water to Peter. Participants see four pictures on a screen showing two potential direct objects (coffee, water) and two indirect objects (Peter, Mary) in all possible combinations. We will track eye-movements to investigate when participants have integrated the accent to determine the location of focus (coffee), which may induce anticipatory fixations on the alternative of the focus (Peter with water). If musicality indeed affects perception, we would expect that participants with higher scores on a music perception test demonstrate faster and more correct looks towards the alternative, indicating a better integration of prosodic cues in online processing.

[1] Akker, E., & Cutler, A. (2003). Prosodic cues to semantic structure in native and nonnative listening. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 6(2), 81-96.
[2] Ganga, R., Ge, H., Struiksma, M., Yip, V., & Chen, A. (2020). Prosodic processing in sentences with ‘only’ in L1 and L2 English. Preprint at
[3] Sadakata, M., & Sekiyama, K. (2011). Enhanced perception of various linguistic features by musicians: A cross-linguistic study. Acta Psychologica, 138, 1-10.
[4] Wong, P. C., Skoe, E., Russo, N. M., Dees, T., & Kraus, N. (2007). Musical experience shapes human brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch patterns. Nature Neuroscience, 10, 420-422.
[5] Mulders, I., & Szendrői, K. (2016). Early association of prosodic focus with alleen ‘only’: Evidence from eye movements in the visual-world paradigm. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 150.
[6] Ge, H., Mulders, I., Yip, V., & Chen, A. (under review). Processing focus in native and non-native speakers of English: An eye-tracking study in the visual world paradigm.
[7] Ge, H., Chen, A., & Yip, V. (2020). Comprehension of focus-to-accentuation mapping in sentences with only by advanced Cantonese learners and Dutch learners of English. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1-25.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventAnéla/VIOT Juniorendag 2021 - University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands
Duration: 23-Apr-202123-Apr-2021


ConferenceAnéla/VIOT Juniorendag 2021


  • prosody
  • second language
  • music perception
  • focus
  • visual world paradigm

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