Pitch Prominence of English Negation in Conversation by Chinese and American Speakers


Most linguists agree that words carrying new information should be realized with prosodic prominence while those expressing given information are often unstressed. Negatives often carry new information as speakers usually use them to express different viewpoints. Moreover, the results of previous acoustic studies based on read speech indicate that speakers consistently stress the negative expressions in a spoken discourse. Thus, for a long time English teachers and learners have reached consensus that negative words should be stressed. However, Yaeger-Dror (1996) proposed the Social Agreement Principle, which means speakers prefer to stress the negative words that convey agreement while weakening the prominence of those expressions containing face-threatening effect, regardless of whether the negative words carry new or given information.

Acoustic studies on Chinese EFL learners’ use of English negatives are quite limited. Furthermore, scholars of SLA mainly focus on EFL learners’ learning and use of basic phonetic rules. For instance, Chen (2005) investigates the prosodic features of the English negative expressions in Chinese college students’ oral production based on the speech materials from the Spoken English Corpus of Chinese Learners (SECCL). Results of her research show that Chinese college students stressed most of negative expressions, indicating they have generally learned well the phonetic prominence rule that new information should be stressed. Compared with SLA studies, sociolinguists, however, pay more attention to how interlocutors will (dis-)obey communicative principles in specific contexts. Since few studies have investigated how Chinese EFL learners will adjust their speech when they use negative words to express agreement or make face-threatening statements, this research project is designed primarily to answer the question whether Chinese college students will produce English negative words and conform to the Social Agreement Principle as American native speakers do.

The speech materials in this study were chosen from two spoken corpora: The Spoken English Corpus of Chinese Learners (SECCL) and the Santa Barbara Corpus of Spoken American English (SBCSAE), which were phonetically analyzed through software Praat. Results show that American speakers stressed 51.7% negatives of all while Chinese college students stressed a high percentage of 79.9% negatives. The high percentage of prominence frequency is consistent with what Chen (2005) found in her study. Additionally, American speakers accented 85% supportive negatives and only 14.3% face-threatening ones, but the corresponding percentages of Chinese speakers are 75% and 77.2%. Such findings suggest that Chinese college speakers generally fail to conform to the Social Agreement Principle as American native speakers do and they tend to indiscriminately stress the majority of negative words.

Significance of the study lies in two aspects: first it provides another perspective to investigate Chinese EFL learners’ communication competence; second, it may have implication for the teaching of English negation. Specifically, English instructors could sharpen students’ awareness of specific social contexts, especially when they make face-threatening statements in friendly or polite conversations with native speakers, and help students avoid misunderstanding due to inappropriate expressions, thus to improve their intercultural communication competence.