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Giuseppina Turco defends PhD on January 20

Humans speak a lot, and not all of it is true, so every language needs resources to express contrastive statements. Or so you would think. Giuseppina Turco, PhD in MPI’s Language Acquisition Department, studied ‘contrastive polarity’ in four languages and found that they solve this problem in quite different ways, with implications for typology and for language learning. Turco defends her thesis, “Contrasting Opposity Polarity in Germanic and Romance Languages”, on January 20 at 14:30, in the Radboud University Aula.
Giuseppina Turco defends PhD on January 20

January 20, 2014

Turco used a dialogue task to collect experimental evidence in four different languages: Dutch, German, French and Italian. A first comparison focused on polarity contrasts in German and Dutch. Turco found that even these two closely related languages behave differently when it comes to signalling contrastive polarity. Contrastive polarity is expressed by German speakers using so-called Verum focus (a high-falling pitch accent on the verb), whereas Dutch speakers mostly use the word wel. For instance, the contrastive statement ‘the child DID cry’, tends to be expressed in German as ‘das Kind HAT geweint’ but in Dutch as ‘het kind heeft wel gehuild’.


The same contrast was also tested in French and Italian, which were thought not to mark it in a systematic way. Turco found that contrastive polarity was expressed much less frequently in these languages, but the experimental results also showed an intonational contrast, much like the Verum focus of German, in one third of the cases. This contrast had not been described before.


The cross-linguistic differences in the marking of polarity contrasts motivated a closer investigation of the phenomenon in second language learners. For instance, speakers of Dutch or German learning Italian, would have to adjust their expression of polarity contrasts accordingly. Turco found that even highly proficient second language learners marked polarity contrasts more often than native Italian speakers, showing that the first language of language learners may continue to shine through, especially for subtle pragmatic contrasts. This finding may help L2 tutors to improve language learning methods.


An important methodological aspect of Turco’s work is the use of the same dialogue task to collect production data for L1 and L2 varities of four languages. This well-controlled data set allowed her to settle some important questions in the much-debated yet empirically under-explored area of contrastive polarity.

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