This study examined the prosodic patterns of Mandarin, Cantonese, and English in order to address the question: Will a native speaker of Mandarin acquire Cantonese intonation more easily than English intonation? According to the Markedness Differential Hypothesis (Eckman 1997), second language (L2) features that are universally rarer than the first language (L1) features will create difficulty for L2 acquisition. English has word stress,
Cantonese has lexical tones, and Mandarin has both. English has more variation in word stress patterns than Mandarin, and Cantonese has more lexical tones than Mandarin. The prediction was that a Mandarin speaker would have difficulty in acquiring English stress and Cantonese tones.
In a field study, I elicited speech samples from a female, adult native speaker of Mandarin who learned Cantonese and English from age 5-6. My pitch analysis of her speech revealed near native-like intonation patterns in English. In Cantonese, however, her declarative questions reflected an overall raise in pitch range, characteristic of her Mandarin questions. My results demonstrated that the consultant showed more difficulty in her acquisition of the native intonation of Cantonese than that of English. The implication is that lexical tones interfere with L2 intonation more so than word stress, because both lexical tones and intonation rely on fundamental frequency (F0) as a primary cue.