Saturday, 20 April 2013

Rhythm and clues

I have dedicated most of my academic life to research on multilingualism, whether simultaneous or consecutive, with a focus on pronunciation and related matters of accent. My take on accent is broader than what I’ve understood this word to mean among specialists as well as laypeople. To me, accent relates not just to vowels and consonants, but principally to prosody, the rhythmical melody which necessarily associates with speech and which, therefore, is necessarily present whenever we speak our language(s).

Calls for attention to the fundamental role that prosody plays in spoken communication are not new. In a previous post, I quoted the earliest references I could find which deal with prosody in child language acquisition. Another interesting study dates from 1946, titled ‘Psychological aspects of speech-melody’, where Louise Zucker pleads for the inclusion of intonation in adult language teaching. Her observations among immigrant populations led her to conclude that newcomers to a foreign country can’t feel “psychologically” at home in it without awareness of the relevance of speech melody.

More recently, in 2010, Reyna Gordon and colleagues investigated the psychological bonds holding words and melodies together, in ‘Words and melody are intertwined in perception of sung words: EEG and behavioral evidence’. They found that “variations in musical features affect word processing in sung language”. This reinforced my conviction that attempting to use “words” without their associated linguistic melodies is like attempting to cook a meal by leaving its ingredients intact. To my mind, findings about sung words are no different from findings about spoken words, because spoken words are sung – whether we choose to call them by this or any other name.

What this research makes clear is not that different languages, or different language varieties, sound different: we all know that. The insights are first, that prosody contains clues to meaning, which we must be able to both listen for and produce; and second, that isolated sounds or words tell us nothing about these clues, because nobody speaks in isolated sounds and words – except in language classrooms. As I’ve repeated over and over again in this blog, starting here, traditional language teaching syllabuses, methodologies, and assessments continue to rely heavily on printed modes of language. Standard orthographies of any language tell us as much about how those languages are spoken as a printed recipe tells us about how food tastes. We don’t speak in ingredients.

Another core reason, in my view, for the neglect of prosody in language teaching is that we have come to assume that learning languages is an intellectual task, whereby we start with conceptual mechanics, to then strain our memory attempting to remember what our new language *looks* like, at the bottom of that right-hand page in the textbook. I’m sure I’ve seen telltale signs of these retrieval exercises in learners’ hand and eye movements, and I’ve had learners confirm that this kind of information is what they’re trying to recall. In short, we’ve forgotten that we use our bodies to speak, and that our bodies therefore harbour fundamental clues to meaning.

Image © Clipart from

As early as inside the womb, we’re primed to the rhythms of our body, whether physiological or linguistic, with no visual aids. There is no light inside the womb, but there is sound – and I’ll have a lot more to say about this in my next post. Let me just add here that linguistic rhythms, unlike, say, cardiac ones, aren’t inbuilt. Linguistic prosodies have grammars, which is one reason why speaking a language with disrupted prosody results in disrupted intelligibility, as stand-up comedians know well. Prosodic false friends abound as much as lexical ones, the difference being that we don’t talk about them. When we assume that a particular falling or rising tone, or a particular tone of voice, mean the same across languages, we’re (mis)taking similar function for similar form, just like when we assume that English deception means Portuguese decepção. The same is true within the “same” language, incidentally: my Brazilian friends find my way of singing “our” language endlessly funny, as much as my habit of putting on a camisola when I feel cold, which to me is a sweater and to them is a nightie.

If you’re curious about how we sing as we speak, have a look at these two publications. My article ‘Portuguese and English intonation in contrast’, and Daniel Hirst and Albert Di Cristo’s book, Intonation Systems. A Survey of Twenty Languages, where I also have a chapter, and which gives the first overview of uses of prosody across and within languages.

Next time, as promised, I’ll explain why we’re all natural singers and dancers, and why this is relevant to our linguistic abilities.

Cruz-Ferreira, M. (2004). Portuguese and English intonation in contrast Languages in Contrast, 4 (2), 213-232 DOI: 10.1075/lic.4.2.03cru

Gordon, R., Schön, D., Magne, C., Astésano, C., & Besson, M. (2010). Words and Melody Are Intertwined in Perception of Sung Words: EEG and Behavioral Evidence PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009889

Zucker, L. (1946). Psychological Aspects of Speech-Melody The Journal of Social Psychology, 23 (1), 73-128 DOI: 10.1080/00224545.1946.9712314

© MCF 2013

Next post: Rhythm clues and glues. Saturday 4th May 2013.

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