Rhythm matters: the role of rhythmic attending for non-native learners of English

Wanat, Ewa (2019) Rhythm matters: the role of rhythmic attending for non-native learners of English. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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In English connected speech, reduction processes can dramatically affect the phonetic shape of words, especially function words, reducing their intelligibility for non-native listeners. There is a close connection between reduction and speech rhythm: metrically weak syllables reduce more, and may be cued only by subtle phonetic detail that non- native listeners struggle to detect. Despite growing evidence that attention to speech and music is rhythmically guided and that speech processing depends on language rhythm, little work has tested whether encouraging non-native learners to attend to rhythm might support their comprehension of casual speech. This thesis investigates whether comprehension of Glaswegian connected speech can be improved if English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners receive training which relies on entraining the learners’ attention to a rhythmic speech stimulus.

Three experiments were conducted. All three of them followed the same pre-test, training and post-test structure. The training differed across experiments as explained below, but in all cases, the pre-test and post-test assessed participants’ comprehension of reduced unstressed function words and morphemes in casually-spoken sentences. All pre-tests and post-tests involved listening to fast casual sentences spoken by Glaswegian English native speakers while reading the sentences on a computer screen where they appeared with gaps, corresponding to reduced unstressed function words. Participants’ task was to fill these gaps with the words they heard. The participants’ score on these tests was the dependent variable.

Experiment 1 investigated whether listening to rhythmically organized speech would improve learners’ comprehension as opposed to speech that was not rhythmically organized. In its training phase, EFL learners in the experimental group listened to speech of high rhythmicity, i.e. sentences of regular metrical structure which had been recorded by asking the speaker to align their speech to a regular metronome beat. Each sentence was presented four times, with its rate increasing from slow to fast, so that participants were exposed to a range of degrees of phonetic reduction, within a rhythmically predictable frame. A control group of learners listened to speech of low rhythmicity: metrically irregular sentences which had been recorded without a metronome beat, as part of a read story; again they heard four presentations ranging from slow to fast rate. To maintain attention, participants’ task during training was to count the number of times food was mentioned. Experiment 1 did not show a significant difference between the experimental and control group in terms of improvement in pre- and post-test comprehension scores, though the numerical result showed more improvement in the experimental than in the control group, i.e. in the expected direction.

Experiment 2 tested whether sensorimotor synchronisation with the beat in speech would improve the learners’ connected speech comprehension, as opposed to control training. Participants in the experimental group received training in which they performed sensorimotor synchronisation (i.e. finger tapping) with the beat they perceived in the speech they heard, while the control group received training in which they listened to the same stimuli but did not tap to the beat. Instead their task was to listen and tap their finger when they heard a randomly placed click sound. Three listener groups took part in this experiment: Chinese EFL learners, native English speakers of a different variety than the speech presented (Canadian and US English), and Glaswegian English native speakers. The results showed that only the Chinese EFL learners improved in the post-test, compared to the control group. In the Canadian/US group, an interesting interaction was found suggesting that the listener’s musical ability affected whether they could benefit from the training. No improvement was found in the Glaswegian native group, whose performance was highest overall.

In the third experiment, Chinese EFL learners, who were attending a preparatory course to study at the University of Glasgow, took part in a short 4-week course, with one 40-minute session per week. In this training phase they learned, as a group, to drum the rhythm of Glaswegian English utterances. The control group continued their curriculum as usual. Neither group showed a significant improvement in comprehension from pre- to post-test, which may relate to aspects of the group training setting, or to the level of English of the participants. The results allowed further exploration of the role of prior musical ability, but this did not appear to affect performance, unlike in Experiment 2.

Taken together, these results are interpreted in the light of Dynamic Attending Theory (Large & Jones 1999) as well as of previous research on perceptual learning and the role of musical ability in learning a second language. Overall, the results of the three experiments offer only limited support for the idea that rhythmic training helps comprehension. The mix of negative and positive findings is interpreted in the light of Dynamic Attending Theory (L&J 1999), as well as previous research on perceptual learning and the role of musical ability in learning a second language. The conclusion argued for here is that benefits of rhythmic training are seen under specific circumstances, where training is set up in such a way as to optimize the possibility of entrainment to speech.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Supervisor's Name: Smith, Dr. Rachel
Date of Award: 2019
Depositing User: Dr Ewa Wanat
Unique ID: glathesis:2019-75038
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 09 Oct 2019 08:00
Last Modified: 22 Oct 2019 13:57
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.75038
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/75038

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