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3.1. Objective and hypothesis

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As was said in the conclusion of Chapter 1, it is important to bear in mind that segments and
prosody are interdependent. Given the true difficulties that French speakers encounter with
English pronunciation, the teaching of both aspects should be included in L2 pronunciation
lessons in France. Although the production of phonemes is focused on in EFL teaching,
prosody also greatly contributes to the improvement of communication between a nonnative
speaker and a native speaker. In fact, suprasegmentals such as stress and rhythm are
at the origin of many segmental errors. Thorén (2008: 17) claims: “there has been the
realization that not all phonetic features are equally important to make the L2-pronunciation
intelligible and “listener friendly” in the field of adult instruction”. This statement is a good
starting point as to the motivation of this research project. As is further explained in Busà
(2008: 114), “it is not clear whether it is the segmental vs. suprasegmental aspects of L2
speech which are more likely to affect L2 speakers’ intelligibility”.

As far as we know, no comparative experiment on the role of prosody vis-à-vis the role of
segments in the production and perception of English by French EFL learners has been
conducted. Our experiment aims at finding out whether a good production of English
prosody by French learners is as important as, indeed more important than, a good
realization of phonemes to native speakers’ ears. By the same token, we hypothesize that
prosodic errors have a worse effect on communication than segmental errors do, and
conversely, we believe that suprasegmental accuracy can lessen phonemic errors. In the
scope of this work, a model for an experiment that aims at comparing the importance of
segments and prosody is developed. It is thus a pilot experiment that we conducted, and as
such, the number of subjects is not large and only production was tested. A certain number
of French-speaking (non-specialist) learners of English as a Foreign Language recorded
English words and sentences before and after either a training on segmentals, or a training
on prosodic features, which is reminiscent of Derwing, Munro and Wiebe’s (1998) and
Missaglia’s (1999) experiments. The goal was to have native English listeners and experts in
English phonology evaluate the productions, in order to compare the scores of the groups
(between-groups design), but also to examine the evolutions within the groups, first
independently (within-groups design), and then again in comparison with each other.

Such empirical evidence of the role of prosody in L2 acquisition could enable learners to
have less to learn and still avoid some segmental errors, as defended by Busà (2008: 118):
“focusing on stress, rhythm and intonation can help learners to improve their overall
pronunciation, and to sound more natural, and can lead to more comprehensible speech as
well as better understanding of other people’s speech”. Accordingly, the status of prosody in
the teaching and learning of English as a foreign language may have to be modified. Rather
than insisting on the lax/tense vowel distinction through isolated minimal pair drills,
suprasegmental features should become known to EFL learners as early as the very
beginning of the acquisition process. This pilot study is to allow future comparative
experimental research into the acquisition of both the perception and production of English
segments and suprasegments.

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