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Teaching Spanish pronunciation
Teaching Spanish pronunciation

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5.4 Contrastive focus

Contrastive focus (also called narrow focus) refers to the information that is contrary to the presuppositions of the interlocutor.  For example, in the questions, Your dad helped you with the work, didn’t he? or Did your dad help you with the work?, the presupposition is that it was our interlocutor’s father who helped. If the answer contradicts this presupposition, the new information is a contrastive focus and nuclear accent will be placed on it (indicated by capitals).

No, my BROther helped me.

In Spanish, the word order is changed in such a way that the expression with contrastive focus is in final position, since this is a special case of new information.

No, me ha ayudado mi herMANO. Quien me ha ayudado ha sido mi herMANO.

Activity 3

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes.

Listen to this student talking and reflect on her rhythm and intonation. Give her some constructive feedback.

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Feedback: Student 1 
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This is a possible answer, but you might notice other features that you would like to point out.

The student’s intonation is good, in general. She has quite big jumps in pitch on some stressed vowels (the first mention of mejsAje; gEnte; famIlia). Perhaps these modulations are affected by exposure to a specific variety of Spanish, not just interference from the intonation of her mother tongue. 

Ideas for exercises

  1. “Read” the following sentences just by humming them, that is, without pronouncing the words, and ask your students first to describe the intonation pattern (e.g. rising slowly/abruptly, falling, etc.). 

    Then read the sentences and ask them to identify the meaning added by intonation.

    1. Hay un ratón en la despensa. (neutral declarative sentence)
    2. ¿Hay un ratón en la despensa? (neutral yes-or-no question)
    3. ¿Hay un ratón en la despensa? (rhetorical question when blaming the interlocutor)
    4. Hay: un ratón en la despensa, … (truncated enumeration)
  2. At higher levels: what’s the difference in meaning between ¿Quieres café (↗) o té (↘)? or ¿Quieres café o té (↘↗)? (Choose one of the two vs. a general offer of something to drink).


Gil, Juana (ed.) Aproximación a la enseñanza de la pronunciación en el aula de español, 2012, Edinumen. 
Hualde, José Ignacio. The Sounds of Spanish, 2005, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pellegrino, François & Coupé, Christophe & Marsico, Egidio. "Across-Language Perspective on Speech Information Rate." Language, vol. 87 no. 3, 2011, pp. 539-558. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/ lan.2011.0057 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]