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2.2.3. Comparative studies of L2 segmentals and suprasegmentals

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While many researchers and even foreign language teachers acknowledge that the
acquisition of L2 suprasegmentals has more importance in intelligibility than the acquisition
of L2 segmentals, very few experimental studies compare the role of each, whether in
perception or production. Instead, it seems as if the importance of one over the other had
only been assumed so far. According to Birdsong (2003: 2), native-likeness at the segmental
level is necessary but not sufficient to guarantee native-likeness at the suprasegmental level.
The experiment conducted by the author thus raised the issue of the link between the
production of prosody and the production of segments. English learners of French as a
Second Language, who had lived in France for at least five years, recorded a list of isolated
French words and three small paragraphs two or three sentences long. Three native French
speakers then evaluated the (randomized) productions on a 5-point scale. Apart from a few
subjects, it turned out that native-like production of suprasegmentals did not predict nativelike
segmental production, and vice versa, and more research on link between segmental and
suprasegmental productions – and perception – is needed.

The experiment by Derwing, Munro and Wiebe (1998) compared the production of English
by two groups of ESL students, who had lived in English-speaking Canada for at least seven
months. All the participants – of various linguistic backgrounds – evidenced both segmental
and suprasegmental production difficulties. They were divided into two groups; one of the
groups received global – i.e. prosodic – content in their classroom instructions, and the other
group focused on segments. The courses lasted for twelve weeks. A third control group
received no specific instructions. After each group recorded read speech (sentences) and
extemporaneous speech (picture narrative task) before and after the courses, native Canadian
speakers blindly evaluated the randomized productions – which also included control
recordings by four Canadian speakers. They had to rate the accentedness, comprehensibility,
and fluency of each speaker. The results indicated that both experimental groups improved
in accentedness and comprehensibility in the reading task. As expected, the control group
that received no instructions did not improve, and the four native speakers got high scores.
Interestingly enough, only the group with global focus improved in the extemporaneous
narrative task, which is first evidence in support of our own claim about the importance of
suprasegments in intelligibility.

A similar experiment was conducted by Missaglia (1999). The production skills of two
groups of native Italian learners of German were compared, after they had received either a
prosody-centred training, or a segment-centred training. The group that received a prosodic
training turned out to have improved significantly more than the other group. The proximity
between the prosodic structure of French and Italian, and that between English and German,
makes it possible to draw a parallel between these results and how French EFL learners
would respond to similar trainings on English prosody/segments. That will be answered
with our experiment.

As far as we know, no similar comparative study of segments and prosody has been done
on French learners of English as a Foreign Language, i.e. who have learned English in school
context only and represent the great majority of L2 learners of English in France. The effect of
segmental and prosodic trainings on the perception of an L2 should also be examined in the
future, as the acquisition of a language does not consist of production skills only.

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