Perception of Stress in L1 and L2 Spanish and English

Word-level stress occurs on a specific syllable of each word and can help distinguish word boundaries, as well as affect a word’s meaning. Three correlates are most often used in languages to denote stress: pitch, vowel duration, and intensity, but languages differ on which of these correlates are most important or necessary at all: for Spanish, pitch is the primary correlate, but for English, duration is more important. The goal of this research is to determine the threshold of perception of duration, pitch, or both together for speakers of English and Spanish in determining the location of word stress, and to determine how these thresholds are affected when learning a new language. Half of the participants (native English speakers who have some level of Spanish knowledge) will be tested at the College of William and Mary, and half (native Spanish speakers who have some level of English knowledge) will be tested at La Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas in Lima, Peru. Both groups will be prompted in both languages to determine the location of stress in words with a syllable altered in duration, pitch, or both, and these results will be compared to the speakers’ reported familiarity and use of their second language. I will examine whether the threshold of perception changes depending on the language of instruction for the groups, as well as if the levels of perception in their native language can correlate with their proficiency in their second language. This experiment will contribute to the field of language acquisition and can eventually be applied to second language education methods.


  1. jacampbell says:

    Hi, Katie!
    You’re absolutely right that there are different dialects/geolects of Spanish. I haven’t been looking too much at the differences between them in terms of stress because most of the research I have seen has lumped the languages together or focused on Castillian Spanish. Since I am looking at data from a specific area (Lima) for the native Spanish speakers, I’ll be able to (mostly) control the variability of the language. For my research at William and Mary, though, I may look into what type of Spanish the bilingual students speak. The issue there, however, is that students who learned Spanish in school will have had teachers from many different countries, so there may be no way to really know what type of Spanish is most similar to what the students speak.

    I’m not quite sure how this experiment could be used to benefit reading and writing a second language, except to help the speaker know the location of stress, which would in turn affect where written accents are placed. For example, I am using the contrasting “llamo” and “llamó” when describing stress patterns to my participants in Lima. If an English speaker did not know the location of the stress due to the inability to perceive it from someone’s speech, they could misplace the location or existence of the written accent.

    Thanks for your questions!

  2. This is incredibly interesting research, and I had no idea there were that many components to word stresses! Due to me being rather unfamiliar with the subject, I have multiple questions. Firstly, I took basic Spanish classes in middle school and high school, and during those I learned that there are often times different “versions” of the Spanish language spoken in different countries, or even different regions of the same country. For example, I know Spanish spoken in Spain uses vosotros but Spanish in Latin American countries does not. Would these specific intricacies to the different Spanish dialects affect your study at all? Do they have to be taken into account in your research on how a Spanish-speaking person interprets/recognizes pitch versus duration in word stresses?

    Another question I have is what sort of benefits could this research have for its application to second language education methods? I could see this being an integral part of someone understanding how to properly speak English versus Spanish and how they learn pronunciations of words, but could it also affect how you learn to read and write a second language as well?

    This is really cool research and I can’t wait to hear about your results!

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