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Neil Shook

Neil Shook


Undergraduate Student - German, Math, Linguistics

USTA Fellowship Recipient to teach English in Austria during 2018-2019


I am an undergraduate student studying German, Math, and Linguistics working with Dr. Carrie Jackson.  I will be traveling to Braunschweig, Germany to work with Dr. Holger Hopp to conduct an experiment researching the effect of prosodic cues on L2 German speaker’s real-time comprehension of German case marking, which could give instructors another tool to help students better recognize and process case markers.

Project Summary

One feature of the German language that is of interest to me is the concept of case marking. Unlike English, German uses morphology to identify the role of each noun in a sentence, usually manifesting itself in the form of the accompanying article. For example, a grammatically masculine noun, such as Fuchs “fox” or Vogel “bird”, takes the nominative definite article der “theNOM” when the noun is acting as the subject of the sentence, or it takes the accusative den “theACC” when the noun is the direct object. So, the sentence Der Fuchs frisst den Vogel translates simply to “TheNOM fox eats theACC bird.” Slightly more complex is the following: Den Vogel frisst der Fuchs (literally “TheACC bird eats theNOM fox.”, translated “The fox eats the bird”). Armed with the knowledge of German case markers and a careful eye, we see that the meaning of this sentence is exactly the same as the previous example; the fox is still eating the bird, despite the backwards word order when compared to English.

Object-first sentences (OVS), such as the example above, are not uncommon in German. OVS sentences may, however, cause difficulty in comprehension for non-native speakers who are not accustomed to a flexible word order due to case marking (e.g., Henry et al., 2009; Jackson, 2008). The First Noun Principle posits that since it is much more common for a sentence begin with the subject, learners of a foreign language tend to interpret the first noun of the sentence as the subject, even if this may lead to an incorrect interpretation as in the case of OVS sentences (VanPatten, 2004). For instance, a study conducted by Dr. Holger Hopp (2015) showed that L1 English-L2 German speakers rely more heavily on word order and semantic cues than on morphosyntactic (i.e., case marking) cues when interpreting the meaning of a sentence in German.

A question of interest is then: how can we get L2 German speakers to better recognize, process, and comprehend OVS sentences using case marking in conversation? One possible solution involves the use of prosody. My proposed study will build upon previous studies conducted to look into this question

and its connection to prosody. In natural discourse, speakers have methods at their disposal to bring attention to a particular part of a sentence. Speakers can use prosodic cues (including stress, rhythm, or intonation) to emphasize an important sentence element. In particular, speakers producing an OVS sentence can emphasize the direct object in the unexpected first position. The research question of my study follows: can prosodic cues help L2 learners of German process case marking in real-time discourse to predict upcoming sentence elements?

Some research has already been conducted involving the connection between case marking and prosody. Henry, DiMidio and Jackson (under review) compared the interaction between explicit instruction (i.e., participants received an explicit explanation of case marking and how, as a result, German word order is more flexible) and prosody in learning to process case marking, concluding that the presence of either explicit information or prosody (or both) resulted in greater retention of comprehending OVS sentences on a delayed written post-test.

My proposed study will help clarify the results of a previous PIRE project (DiMidio, 2015) involving a similar experimental design. Using the visual world paradigm, we will observe the eye movements of L2 German speakers as they listen to German sentences. For example, participants may be presented a picture of a bird, a beetle, and a fox, and hear one of the following sentences:

  1. (a)  Der Vogel frisst gleich den Käfer. (SVO) (literally: TheNOM bird eats soon theACC beetle.) (translation: The bird eats the beetle soon.)

  2. (b)  Den Vogel frisst gleich der Fuchs. (OVS) (literally: TheACC bird eats soon theNOM fox.) (translation: The fox eats the bird soon.)

The First Noun Principle tells us that participants should have no trouble comprehending sentence (a) in real-time, since the first noun encountered in the sentence is the subject. However, sentence (b) does not fit the familiar subject-first sentence mold. Not accustomed to listening for such morphosyntactic cues as case markers, participants would initially anticipate that the bird (the first noun encountered) is doing the eating in sentence (b), and their eyes would move towards what the bird would eat (i.e., the beetle). Only upon hearing the final noun of the sentence would their eyes be drawn to the fox (as shown in Hopp, 2015). However, if sentence (b) were presented with a strong emphasis, or pitch accent, on den Vogel, the participant is given a further clue to identify the role of each noun in the sentence. This additional cue in the form of this pitch accent could bring attention to the case marker of the direct object, thereby facilitating the use of case marking in real-time comprehension. If this were the situation, we would expect the participants to look first at the bird, then anticipate (and look at) what logically would eat the bird (i.e., the fox), since den Vogel is already marked as the direct object of the sentence, before der Fuchs is even heard.

In the previous PIRE study conducted by Jack DiMidio, participants were presented with a group of sentences with this contrastive prosody for OVS sentences at the beginning of the experiment, followed by a group of sentences with neutral prosody. Results revealed that the participants’ subject- first bias was reduced; that is, compared to Hopp, 2015, subjects were not as strongly biased to automatically interpret the first noun of the sentence as the subject. One possibility that the contrastive prosody acted as a sort of priming for the neutral sentences, namely that knowing what to expect from the first block which included the additional prosodic cue facilitated processing of OVS sentences with neutral prosody in block 2. However, given other methodological differences between Jack’s study and Hopp (2015) (i.e., immersed vs. non-immersed L2 learners; the total number of experimental items), it is difficult to substantiate this conclusion without additional testing. Thus, my study will reverse the order of the blocks: the neutral prosody block first, followed by the contrastive prosody block. Then, my data combined with Jack’s data will give us a clearer picture as to the benefits of using contrastive prosody to

incorporate case marking information during real-time sentence comprehension among L2 German speakers.

In order to obtain comparable data to the previous study, I will be sampling participants living in Germany who are learning German as a second language, as Jack did in 2015. Additionally, by working with both Dr. Jackson in State College and Dr. Hopp in Germany, I will be able to work in a similar laboratory environment as the earlier PIRE study, making the best possible comparisons.

When learning a foreign language, the ultimate goal is to become familiar enough with the language to process and use the language in as native-like a manner as possible. Therefore, if we find that the inclusion of contrastive prosody significantly helps English speakers learn and incorporate case marking into their L2 German and use this grammatical feature to predict upcoming arguments in a sentence (as native speakers did in Hopp, 2015), this gives German instructors another tool to use in a classroom setting. Case marking is one of the most difficult concepts to grasp in learning German – think of having to select one of potentially sixteen forms of the word for “the” – so any helpful strategy to get students to process case markers (especially in seemingly weird OVS sentences that are used in real German discourse) is useful to study.