Cultural differences in stress and intonation

Cultural Intonation

Cultural differences in stress and intonation patterns as they relate to overall language processing and acquisition

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Language is arguably the most essential and recognizable cultural identifier. The communicative value of language far exceeds that of the simple meanings behind words used; information is transmitted through syntax, word stress, and intonation by methods that are highly mediated by the culture of both the speaker and the listener. Recent and ongoing research has shown that the differences in intonation and stress patterns from language to language and culture to culture correlate to subtle differences in the brain’s development and processing of language, beginning even in pre-linguistic infants. This suggests culture and language, far from being limited to external and conscious factors of differentiation and recognition, also enter into an early internal dialogue that shapes the very rbains of individuals within a given culture.

The fact that native speakers of different languages, and even to a degree speakers of the same language from different cultures, recognize and utilize different stress and intonation patterns is well documented. So, too, has the stress pattern and intonation recognition of pre-lingual infants, suggesting that language processing is an early step — perhaps one of the earliest — in the formation of a cultural identity within an individual. The exact relation of the cognitive skills and abilities to process and show a preference for one language over another in infancy to overall cognitive development has also received some attention, but as of yet there is no study whose purpose is connecting the early elements of language acquisition to overall cognitive and cultural development. This paper attempts a preliminary understanding of the issue.


Language is one of the key mechanisms for the transmission of cultural models — for understanding others’ ways thinking, perceiving, and relating to others and the surrounding environment (Bonvillain 2007). These cultural models include such macro components as mythologies and religious beliefs, as well as far more subtle micro components that not only allow for the transmission of cultural models via language, but actually influence the shaping and recognition of language in a culturally unique way (Bonvillain 2007). That is, every culture has a worldview that differs in subtle yet very real ways, and this is both reflected in and reinforced by that culture’s use of language. Both allowances for certain word variations and “missing” concepts or terms from a culture’s language provide readily apparent examples of these cultural differences, but there are more common and pervasive differences that are arguably more telling.

Word stress and intonation patterns are unique to every language, and even to every culture/subculture’s use of a given language. The English spoken by a native Texan, for instance, is markedly different from that of a Minnesotan, despite using almost entirely the same vocabulary and grammatical structure. Continuing research is beginning to suggest that notable differences in cognitive processing of native and foreign stress patterns is observable within the first six months, long before infants exhibit any linguistic ability (Frederici et al. 2007). In addition, there is some evidence which suggests overall cognitive function and perception may be affected by differences in the cognitive processes of language acquisition and verbal pattern recognition in pre-linguistic infants, which are known to exist along cultural lines (Frederici et al. 2007; Hohle et al. 2009).

Strangely, despite the increasing attention paid to language in both biological medical and sociological fields, the differences in the sounds produced by different languages/cultures has received very little study (Bonvillain 2007). The differences in sounds produced are highly important within specific cultures as well; there are many known instances of gender differentiation and class distinction based on pronunciation and the pure availability of various phonetic sounds and units to a given sub-set of a culture (Bonvillain 2007). Both intra- and intercultural sound differences have been shown to have a neurological and cognitive basis with effects observable neurologically in infancy that are socially and culturally expressed via language usage and acquisition ability well into adulthood (Ngyuen et al. 2006).

The link between the cognitive and cultural aspects of intercultural linguistic differences, specifically stress and intonation differences, has received little scholarly attention as yet (Arciuli & Slowiaczek 2007). Though each of these aspects of language has received a fair amount of attention independently, a cohesive study of the various linguistic phenomenon that serve as cultural markers and transmitters has yet to be undertaken. Stress pattern and intonation differences have been noted in regards to their relation to perceptions of other cultures, as well as in their effects upon language acquisition skills later in life with strong implications for the cognitive differences created by early language development, but the link between the two remains a missing yet vital part of understanding language’s full implications (Laroche et al. 2009; Zhang et al. 2008).

Literature Review

Studies concerning specific intercultural linguistic differences and intracultural idiosyncrasies are widely varied, and it can be difficult to draw broad conclusions from a synthesis of so much disparate information. There are enough common strands in many of these studies to begin to draw a tenuous link between the cultural and cognitive aspects of language acquisition and differentiation. In a study of word and syllable stress in the final words of spoken syntactical units in American English, Turk & Shattuck-Hufnagel (2007) found that final word stress is closely related to the main-stress syllable. Their most significant finding was the inconsistent differentiation medial stresses in words falling between the main stress syllable and final word/syllables which suggested that the automatic cognitive processes influencing word stress and pattern recognition is more complex than current models account for, necessitating reevaluation of language development (Turk & Shattuck-Hufnagel 2007).

A cross-cultural study conducted by Zhang et al. (2008) found similar issues at work in native Mandarin speakers and their ability to both recognize and reproduce stress patterns in spoken English. The researchers noted that the basic elements used to distinguish stressed and unstressed syllables were the same for both native Mandarin and native English speakers, but that the levels of emphasis and attention placed individually on these elements was different among the two culture (Zhang et al. 2008). Furthermore, the Mandarin speakers exhibited great difficulty in reproducing certain stress patterns, with the study suggesting that these difficulties arose largely from differences in the general stress patterns of Mandarin and English, as well as from the different et of available vowel sounds (Zhang et al. 2008). Recognition of stress patterns as an early part of cognitive development could result in the learning difficulties.

Nguyen et al. (2008) came to significantly different conclusions in their study of both beginner and advanced Vietnamese speakers of English when compared to native Australian speaker. The most salient difference between the findings of Nguyen et al. (2008) and Zhang et al. (2008) was the utilization of certain acoustical aspects in recognizing and repeating stress patterns in spoken (Australian) English. While Vietnamese speakers utilized three of the same four criteria noted in Zhang et al. (2008), timing contrast was virtually non-evident in beginning speakers (Nguyen et al. 2008). Advanced speakers also showed difficulty in performing accurate reproductions of the time contrast aspect of stress in spoken Australian English, but showed a definite use of the acoustical manipulation (Nguyen et al. 2008). This suggests a larger degree of cognitive adaptation than described in Zhang et al. (2008) (Nguyen et al. 2008).

Chapman (2007) strikes something of a middle ground between Zhang et al. (2008) and Nguyen et al. (2008) in his examination of discourse intonation and the practicality of teaching English intonation and stress patterns to Japanese students. Over a ten-year period of teaching and study, Chapman came to the conclusion that certain aspects of intonation and stress recognition can indeed be learned, even when the acoustical variations used to denote such differentiation in the target language are not present or are not emphasized as fully in the native language of speaker (Chapman 2007). Other aspects of intonation and stress usage were too subtle to be practically taught to most students, suggesting a malleable but partially static cognitive process (Chapman 2007). Though his study was limited to Japanese students of American English, Chapman asserts that his findings are applicable more broadly (Chapman 2007).

Suggestions that the processing of language and the malleability of the cognitive mechanisms governing its processing and acquisition later in life are somehow related to other cognitive processes are found in a recent study of six- to eight-year-old native Spanish speakers (. 2009). In an experiment that required the reading aloud of polysyllabic words and pseudowords, Gutierrez-Palma et al. (2009) determined that stress sensitivity was a primary factor in reading fluency. This has much broader implications as to the effect of stress and intonation recognition on overall learning ability and other cognitive processes, which according to this study might not only shape how but also how well things can be learned or communicated across cultures and in non-native languages (Guttierez-Palm 2009).

A newly published groundbreaking study of German and French infants provides a great deal of evidence that stress pattern recognition is indeed developed with a preference for the target language even during pre-linguistic exposure to language (Hohle et al. 2009). Other studies had previously concluded that English infants developed a preference for trochaic words, the dominant stress construct of English words, over iambic stress patterns within the first year of life (Hohle et al. 2009). A comparison of German and Frecnh infants in four distinct experiments confirms and even narrows down the timeframe in which this differentiation of preference occurs, and also shows (through the French language experiments) that the ability to distinguish the two opposing stress patterns does not necessarily result in the development of preference, if the target language itself lacks a dominant stress structure (Hohle et al. 2009). Even at six months, a specific language begins to mediate perception.

An earlier study suggests that the timing of stress and intonation preference development is even sooner than six months. While citing evidence suggesting that and melodic variations are recognized within the first four months of life, while language-specific recognition does not begin until after six months, Frederici et al. (2007) shows (also using German and French infants) that stress recognition is definitely language specific by four months of age. Measurements of brain activity were taken that showed a clear spike when stress patterns of each infants’ target language were heard, as compared to opposing stress patterns (Frederici et al. 2007). This shows not only a cognitive preference for language, but also a neurological one in infants as young as four months old.

Arciuli & Slowiaczek (2007) delve deeper into the neurological basis and mechanisms of language processing and stress preference, studying brain activity in adult subjects when confronted with various word-naming and recognizing tasks. The researchers found that stress typicality effects — the recognition and response to different stress patterns — arose only in the left hemisphere of the brain, though language processing as a whole requires portions of both hemispheres (Arciuli & Slowiaczek 2007). The results of this study results led the researchers to the tentative conclusions that stress patterns might actually come prior to lexical access in the process of word recognition, limiting the number of available words before other sounds are even considered, and that prosody and grammar are inextricably linked in the language processing system (Arciuli & Slowiaczek 2007). This provides even more compelling evidence for the link between the cognitive mechanisms of language and means of cultural identification and expression.

As extensions of basic biological constructs, the neurological factors underlying language are, of course, universal across cultures. For this reason, many behavioral scientists have come to the conclusion that the acquisition of language occurs at the same pace and by the same mechanisms in all cultures (Wyatt 2007). Social avenues for the learning and reinforcement of language are shown to be largely the same, and combined with the neurological and cognitive factors that are essentially universal to all of humanity, language development does indeed appear o have the same basis and impetus across cultures (Wyatt 2007). At the same time, linguistic differences between cultures utilize these mechanisms differently, and result in different cognitive patterns becoming more easily utilized by adult speakers of a given language (Wyatt 2007). The cultural similarities in the acquisition of language and the development of language learning skills, that is, are offset by the cultural differences in the ultimate use and processing of language; language has a commo basis, but not result.

Because of this, language has been shown a statistically significant measure of ethnic identity (Laroche et al. 2009). Though this may seem to be an incredibly simplistic conclusion on the surface, the fact that language has been proven a valid construct of ethnic identity shows the fundamentality of language to ethnicity and other measures/boundaries of culture (Laroche et al. 2009). Though long used as a conscious means of distinguishing between various groups of people, the scientific finding of linguistic differences as primary markers of culture is truly significant.


The findings of the literature review conducted for this paper break down into three primary categories: cultural differences in stress and intonation patterns in spoken language and the effects they have on the ability to gain fluency in other languages, the timing and progression of stress pattern differentiation in the development of language skills, and the deeper understanding of the cognitive and neurological basis for language skills. Research has shown that there is a clear cementing of stress pattern and intonation recognition and preference that remains only slightly malleable in adulthood (Chapman 2007; Nguyen et al. 2008; Zhang et al. 2008). Difficulties in language learning and spoken fluency is largely a matter of stress pattern incompatibility between the native and target languages (Chapman 2007; Nguyen et al. 2008; Zhang et al. 2008). Furthermore, language differences account for a great deal of the differentiation in ethnic identification, even within linguistic groups (Laroche et al. 2009).

When it comes to the timing and progression of stress recognition, the studies reviewed show a clear and early differentiation in the stress patterns recognized and shown preference for that breaks down along linguistic lines (Frederici et al. 2007; Hohle et al. 2009). At six or even four months of age, infants have already begun to show a preference for stress patterns common to their native languages, and these preferences continue into adulthood often at the exclusion of equitable recognition of other patterns suggesting a cognitive hindrance to the later adaptation of stress recognition among previously non-preferential stress patterns (Frederici et al. 2007; Hohle et al. 2009; Chapman 2007). When children achieve literacy, stress sensitivity has been strongly correlated with reading proficiency, showing a strong connection between stress recognition and future cognitive development (Gutierrez-Palma et al. 2009).

The neurological and cognitive underpinnings of language and its relationship to culture are the most complex findings of this paper. It has been demonstrated that, despite the quickly developed and eventually engrained differences in the recognition and processing of spoken language, the process by which language is learned is universal among humans (Wyatt, 2007). That being said, the differences in results in the early processes of language development can lead to significant differences in the later processing of spoken language due to the link between stress and other aspects of language such as grammar and syntax (Turk & Shattuck-Hufnagel 2007; Arciuli & Slowiaczek 2007). There is also evidence that stress pattern recognition and preference is the initial response to language in the ordering of brain processes, and could possibly have stronger interpretative implications than previously thought (Arciuli & Slowiaczek 2007).


The lack of research concerning the relationship between the cognitive and cultural aspects of spoken language, and of the effect stress patterns have both on overall cognitive processing and the ability to communicate across cultures, has necessitated a broad review of related research topics in order to develop a rudimentary and preliminary understanding of the relationship. The conclusions drawn here, then, are inferences at best, and must be supported with future research before they can be fully validated. An understanding of many of the underlying principles of both the cultural and cognitive aspects of language provides fertile ground for consideration, however.

One of the most obvious implications of current research into the differences in stress recognition in spoken languages is the fundamental hindrance this can provide to communication. The difficulty in learning a foreign language with stress patterns significantly different from one’s native language has been noted in several studies (e.g. Chapman 2007; Nguyen et al. 2008; Zhang et al. 2008). A large part of stress pattern recognition has to do with the qualitative information being communicated by a specific utterance; the stress pattern divide can lead to confusions in this aspect, making intercultural communication more difficult. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that stress patterns mediate the quantitative meaning of individual words and syntactical units, which doubtless adds more of a hindrance to communication between native speakers of two different languages or even two notably different dialects of the same language (Arciuli & Slowiaczek 2007; Turk & Shattuck-Hufnagel 2007). Though this might appear a foregone conclusion, the research shows that this is far more profound than an auditory disconnect, but a true inability to fully apprehend language with unfamiliar stress patterns.

The fact that reading proficiency has been significantly linked to stress sensitivity adds credence to the assertion that stress and intonation patterns are fundamental in the mediation of meaning during spoken communication (Gutierrez-Palma et al. 2009). Differences in cognitive ability, in this view, are not the result of different processes but simply greater sensitivity and efficiency in the use of universal cognitive and neurological mechanisms. As reading comprehension improves with stress sensitivity, it stands to reason that foreign language learning and general intercultural communication would also be better effected by those with a greater capacity for differentiating between various familiar and strange stress patterns. At some point, this might also lead to useful applications in language instruction (Chapman 2007).

The early onset of language recognition and the solidification of stress preference for the sounds of an individual’s native language during the first six months of life also has profound implications on the pure practicality of intercultural development (Frederici et al. 2007; Hohle et al. 2009). With language preferences being set so early, and the effects of the preferences and differentiations made so profound in the later development of language and overall cognitive abilities, it is clear that intercultural communication with an accented speaker, or in a foreign language. actually requires one to overcome unconscious neurological and cognitive patterns and not mere auditory confusion or xenophobic prejudice. Again, this finding is significant not in that it suggests difficulties for cross-cultural communication, but that suggests a clear cognitive basis for this difficulty. It is possible that this understanding of the early recognition of stress patterns could also be used effectively in language learning programs.


Research specifically targeted at determining the link between the cultural and cognitive processes and meditative factors of language is still necessary for the furtherance of our understanding of one of the most complex yet most basic aspects of humanity. Language is more than simply a means of transmitting cultural models; it is an essential tool in the shaping of culture as well. This can make language an effective barrier to intercultural communication based solely on cognitive principles, but at the same time an open and adaptive use of language, coupled with a better understanding of its workings, could lead to a new age fostering more effective multicultural communication.


Arciuli, J. & Slowiaczek, L. (2007). “The where and when of .” Neuropsychologia 45(11), pp. 2638-42.

Bonvillain, N. (2007). Language, culture and communication: the meaning of messages, fifth edition. New York: Prentice Hall.

Chapman, M. (2007). “Theory and practice of teaching discourse intonation.” ELT journal 61(3), pp. 3-11.

Friederici, a.; Fredirich, M.; Christophe, a. (2007). “Brain responses in 4-month-old infants are already language specific.” Current biology 17(14), pp. 1208-11.

Gutierrez-Palma, N.; Raya-Garcia, M. & Palma-Reyes, a. (2009). “Detecting stress patterns is related to children’s performance on reading tasks.” Applied psycholinguistics, 30(1), pp. 1-21.

Hohle, B.; Bijeljac-Babic, R.; Herold, B.; Weissenborn, J. & Nazzi, T. (2009). “Language specific prosodic preferences during the first half year of life: Evidence from German and French infants.” Infant behavior and development 32(3), pp. 262-74.

Laroche, M.; Pons, F. & Richard, M. (2009). “The role of language in ethnic identity measurement: A multitrait-multimethod approach to construct validation.” Journal of social psychology 149(4), pp. 513-40.

Nguyen, T.; Ingrahm, C. & Pensalfini, J. (2008). “Prosodic transfer in Vietnamese acquisition of English contrastive stress patterns.” Journal of phonetics 36(1), pp. 158.

Turk, a. & Shattuck-Hufnagel, S. (2007). “Multiple targets of phrase-final lengthening in American English words.” Journal of phonetics 35(4), pp. 445-72.

Wyatt, J. (2007). “Skinner 1, Chomsky 0.” Behavior analysis digest 19(4), pp. 13-4.

Zhang, Y.; Nissen, S. & Francis, a. (2008). “Acoustic characteristics of English lexical stress produced by native Mandarin speakers.” Journal of the acoustical society of America 123(6), pp. 4498-513

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