Get the focus right: a cross-linguistic study on prosodic encoding of focus in children
05 / 2011 - 04 / 2016
To ensure efficient communication, speakers flag the new information or focus in a sentence to draw listeners' attention to it. Many languages use prosody for this purpose. For instance, in Dutch, the focused word gets accented, whereas the post-focus sequence is spoken with a flat pitch pattern (deaccented). For a long time it has been believed that children can use prosody to highlight focus early on because of universal physiological mechanisms. Very recent work on two-year-olds' use of prosody has however shown that children are initially not adultlike in focus marking, implying that prosodic encoding of focus needs to be acquired. This project will investigate how children acquire this capacity over time. Importantly, languages differ in how they highlight focus prosodically, both in the focused constituent and the post-focus constituents. languages also differ in which prosodic parameters are used for both lexical purposes and focus marking. These differences between languages imply language-specificity in both the rate and the route of acquiring prosodic encoding of focus. Thus far, work on children's focus marking has been limited to West Germanic languages and failed to shed light on language-specificity on this matter. Further, little attention has been paid to individual variation whereas individual variation is characteristic of language development. In this project, I will study how 4- to 10-year-olds acquire prosodic encoding of focus in four languages that differ sharply in both prosodic realisation of focus and lexical specifications of prosody, i.e. Chinese, Korean, Swedish and Dutch. Particular attention will be given to individual variation in the rate and the route of acquisition.. Reliable data with pre-determined lexical content and focus conditions will be elicited via established methods. In doing so, I aim to develop a comprehensive theory of acquisition of prosodic encoding of focus with an emphasis on language-specificity and individual variation.