Saturday, 20 October 2012

Friendly speakers and friendly listeners

The title of this post draws on Olle Kjellin’s take that speakers of a shared language would do well to nurture what he calls a “listener-friendly pronunciation”. Raising awareness that speaking is about thoughtfulness towards whom we are speaking to may come as a Why-didn’t-I-think-of-this-before epiphany, for those of us bred among the traditional one-size-fits-all kinds of accents that learners keep being fed in language classes.

Sensitivity to the linguistic comfort zone of other human beings certainly is, to my mind, a good thing to nurture. It’s also a matter of etiquette. It makes others feel good in our company, and it makes us feel good, too, because awareness of our surroundings allows us to feel in control. Not least, this kind of sensitivity is usually reciprocated, whether we’re being hosts or guests, including in our languages. It’s not that difficult, either: as newcomers to a party or a business meeting, say, we use the same mechanism to monitor the ongoing atmosphere, so that we may gain entitlement to merge with it. Or not, of course: if we find ourselves surrounded by deliberately hostile merrymakers and moneymakers, or by speaker-unfriendly listeners, it doesn’t matter how mood-friendly or how listener-friendly we strive to be. It’s a matter of will, and of awareness that all of us, habitués or rookies, have been “ongoing” too, for more or less extended periods of time, around more or less varied kinds of people, with the effect that our speaking and listening habits have become set, in what may feel more or less like stone.

Linguistic friendliness matters, both ways, because there is a sophisticated interplay between speaking and listening, rooted in a law which is very, very familiar and very, very dear to all of us: The Law of Least Effort. As speakers, we’re quite reluctant to disturb the comfy humdrum routines that we’ve patiently trained our vocal tracts to observe. As listeners, we simply stop listening to whatever threatens to engage skills beyond what we deem to be our territorial listening rights. Call it laziness, if you so wish. I prefer to say that our human speech and hearing hardwares are optimised to account for effort-effect tradeoffs: less effort from speakers means added inconvenience to listeners, and vice versa. Never has “Do Unto Others” had such a practical, everyday application.

One sure way to create linguistic friendliness is to literally tune into the rhythmical patterns which characterise our fellow speakers. By this I mean their body language, facial expressions, visible and audible articulatory movements, anything that can help us decode the cadences underlying the ways in which our interlocutors use their language(s). Speakers and listeners are individuals, like you and me: the Upanishads put it precisely the way I believe matters of “languages” should be put, with the remark that “It is not the language but the speaker that we want to understand.” It’s all about people, like you and me.

All cultures, as far as we know, have developed characteristic ways of harnessing human vocalisations and body movements as a means of nurturing commonality. This is what we came to call “song” and “dance”, respectively. Steven Mithen, in his book The Singing Neanderthals, draws on archaeological, neurological and other evidence to propose a unified account of The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, as in the subtitle of the book. More recently, Gustavo Arriaga, Eric P. Zhou and Erich D. Jarvis, in an article titled Of mice, birds, and men: The mouse ultrasonic song system has some features similar to humans and song-learning birds, report that fellow mammals share with us what we already knew we shared with songbirds, the ability to communicate through the use of learned vocalisations, which we fine-tune to match what we hear around us.

Falling in with other people cannot then be rocket science: even when simply strolling around with somebody else, we end up moving with a shared rhythm which makes everybody happy, because our heads bob in synchrony so that we can talk to one another easily. Cadences form a core part of our survival: breathing, chewing, sleeping, digesting, pumping blood through our bodies take place in cycles of natural tempos, amplitudes, frequencies, durations. Small wonder that our languages follow suit: facts are that we can’t open our mouths, in any language, without assigning tempos, amplitudes, frequencies, durations to the sounds we produce. In short, without prosody.

This is why linguistic prosodies are not just niceties, a waste of our precious executive learning time, cherries on cakes, and so on, even if we’ve never been told about these things in our language lessons. Even if we believe that this is irrelevant at preliminary Me-Tarzan-You-Jane stages of acquisition, and even if we believe that language learners must go through Me-Tarzan-You-Jane acquisitional stages, which is far from a universal truth.

“Me dance you?”

Image © 1966, NBC Television (Wikimedia Commons)

Even at this supposed learning stage, are you telling Jane your name and hers? Or are you asking, or repeating what Jane said, or are you expressing stupefaction at a sudden realisation that people can have such names, or names at all?

Prosody is so central to our languages that we felt the need to create, for them, meaningless carriers of meaningful prosodies, precisely because prosody is enough. Nearly thirty years ago, Melvin J. Luthy conducted a pioneering study on Nonnative speakers’ perception of English “nonlexical” intonation signals, which found that core American English-bound melodic signals were either missed or misinterpreted by newcomers to the language.

If you also happen to be a newcomer to American English, have a look at how Judy B. Gilbert implements listener-friendliness in the classroom, in her book (aptly!) titled Clear Speech. One of her teaching mottoes is that “Small chunks of language should be learned like little songs.” You can also watch a video of one of her presentations of her teaching method.

Next time, I’ll take back everything I’ve said in this post.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Secret languages. Wednesday 31st October 2012.

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