This study compared how well native Mandarin and native English speakers can perceive prosodically marked focus in English echo questions. Twenty-five yes–no echo questions were produced with a sentence focus, a verb focus, and an object focus. After hearing each sentence, they were asked to choose a correct response. Native English listeners were more accurate than native Mandarin on verb and object focus, but not on sentence focus. More importantly, both groups confused object focus with sentence focus and vice versa. However, confusion between object and verb focus, and between object and sentence focus was infrequent. These results suggest that, in some cases, (1) acoustic prominence on the head of a phrase or its internal argument can project to the entire phrase and make the entire phrase focused, and (2) parallel transmission of the two functions of intonation, and cross-linguistic variation in focus marking (prosodically versus syntactically) may contribute to their perceptual ambiguity.
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