Assessing foreign language speech rhythm in multilingual learners

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The present study investigates the rhythmic properties of the non-native speech produced by multilingual learners with Mandarin Chinese as a heritage language who acquire French and English as foreign languages in the German school context. Data collected from monolingual German and monolingual Chinese learners serve as control materials. For the production of the syllable-timed speech rhythm of French, it is shown that monolingual learners with (syllable-timed) Mandarin Chinese as L1 perform more target-like than learners with (stress-timed) German as L1, while the latter produce the stress-timed rhythm of the foreign language English in a more target-like way. The multilingual learners with Mandarin Chinese as a heritage language obtain intermediate values for both French and English, as a function of their personal attitudes towards the languages of the sample and depending on the degree of multilingual and phonological awareness. We conclude that, in addition to linguistic factors such as the syllable- or stress-timedness of the languages involved, cross-linguistic influence in prosody is also constrained by certain extra-linguistic factors. Depending on the interplay of these factors, the multilingual learners can have an advantage over the German monolinguals in learning French and over the Chinese monolinguals in learning English in that the speech rhythm of their background languages may be positively transferred to the foreign languages. Our findings suggest that a multilingual linguistic background constitutes no disadvantage for the learning of foreign languages and that multilingual and phonological awareness should be promoted in contexts of foreign language learning in both learners and teachers.


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