Saturday 28 May 2011

Learning to speak in tune

I thought of starting with a treat today, to put you in a good mood – and so dispose you favourably towards the point I want to make in this post. This video, and related ones, of two twin boys talking to each other has made the rounds on the internet lately (thank you, Jessie!). So sit back and have a thoroughly enjoyable look – and listen – before reading on.

Besides the undeniable cuteness of the whole episode, did you also notice that the type of words (or sounds, or phrases, or whatever you wish to call them) that the boys use is extremely limited? They’re da-da-da-ing, largely. Before babies acquire so-called “words” of their languages, they go through this stage in their language development (it’s called reduplicated babbling, or canonical babbling), from a previous stage where they babble a large variety of words-sounds-phrases.

Words are assumed to be the language-things that babies need to produce before we can say that they’re producing “language”, so much so that whatever they produce before they produce words has been called the “pre-linguistic” stage. But why do babies waste time giving what looks like evidence of articulatory skills dwindling to da-da-da-ing, instead of starting speaking in words straight away and get on with their language learning job?

The answer is that words, and sounds-phrases, are what (word-sound-phrase-initiated) linguists believe that languages are composed of, and so what they believe babies should be learning when they’re learning languages. (If you frowned at my use of the word talking, three paragraphs ago, to describe what the two baby boys are doing, you probably believe that too.) I’ll come back some other time to issues of what we think we know, about baby language or anything else, but what I think is going on here is that babies know better. They are experts at strategies of learning, like the one that advises us to do one thing at a time. They stick to ba-ba, di-di, gu-gu kind of stuff for a while because they can pronounce it easily, so that they can concentrate their learning efforts on something else: practising the prosody of their language(s), with which they have been familiar from their luxury spa time, wallowing around inside mummy’s tummy. Just listen to what the two baby boys are doing.

We’ve known for many years that prosody, which embodies the cadences of any speech event, comes first in language acquisition, and comes meaningfully. In 1893, in an article titled The speech of children, A. Stevenson made the point that “the child’s tone of utterance” distinguishes between different meanings intended by the child. In the following year, in his Preliminary report on the learning of language, H. T. Lukens noted that “tone and gesture perform the function of grammatical inflection and syntax, making distinctions of thought long before they are represented by separate words.”

We also know that we human beings have some natural propensity to shake our bodies rhythmically and whirl around open spaces and howl our feelings out loud. We call this “dancing” and “singing” because it sounds more civilised (and shorter) than ‘shaking our bodies rhythmically and whirling around open spaces and howling our feelings out loud’, and we’ve devised sophisticated ways of restraining our natural instincts to shake, whirl and howl at our leisure by calling them other names, like tango, ballet, fado, opera. But whatever we call what we’re doing when we do this, we’re shaking and whirling and howling. Like the twin baby boys.

Dance, song, chants, music, are part of all cultures all over the world, because they are part of what we are as human beings, so it is not surprising that prosody plays the fundamental role that it does in our languages too. What is surprising is that so few of us who busy ourselves with languages, and child or later learning of them, have busied ourselves with it. Well over one century ago, in the same paper that I quote above, A. Stevenson observed that “A child is a foreigner learning the language”.

My point (the one I’ve bartered for the video treat) is that prosodic scaffolding is a prerequisite to natural linguistic delivery, for any learners. We need to attend to prosody, and we need to attend to it first, because the remainder of the language falls into place within its mould. For child language development, this is one of the arguments I make in my book Three is a Crowd?, about my own children’s language development. And yes, in case you’re wondering, they did babble different prosodies according to the language that they associated with whom they were talking to, at any given time. They also babbled in tongues to their toys, depending on which language they matched to each toy.

For later language learning, Olle Kjellin’s book Uttalet, språket och hjärnan. Teori och metodik för språkundervisningen shows that replicating the modes of child language acquisition inevitably results in sound proficiency (pun intended). You can read a digest of his arguments in English, Accent addition: prosody and perception facilitate second language learning, and my review of the book (also in English), published in LMS-Lingua, the journal of the Språklärarnas Riksförbund.

I’m not saying that we should require students to come to class half-naked, half-socked and hauling in a fridge to hold on to, while practising their way along successful language learning. Nor am I saying that teachers should adopt mothering strategies to nurture grown-up learners through their first attempts at making themselves understood – although motherese might help: using this language register, that characterises speech to young children (and to elderly people, and pets, and plants) in some cultures, improved adult learning of vocabulary in a new language. I’m saying that a lot of what children do with their learning matches quite accurately what we adults like to do too. All of us were children, and many of us haven’t forgotten it.

Children don’t read instruction manuals. Many adults refuse to read them too, not just because they’re mostly bulky and written in nerd-speak and mostly contain no answers to what we’re looking for, but because we adults, like children, prefer trial and error. This kind of hands-on dealing with things is what makes us learn: we never forget the trial that succeeded because we did it ourselves. Adults enjoy poetry, recitation, listening over and over again to favourite stories and songs. Children love practising and listening to rote repetition (they react if we dare change a single word, when recounting a familiar story) – which, incidentally, makes one wonder why rote-learning strategies have become a no-no in early schooling.

We all love lullabies, and nursery rhymes, perhaps not so much because they remind us of cosy times, but because they helped give us an anchor to our languages. I believe that the reason why nursery rhymes endure, unchanged, across generations, is precisely that they crystallise the prosodic features of a language. Have you noticed that most of the words in nursery rhymes don’t make much sense? And that most rhymes associate with body movements? Someone once said (I can’t remember who, unfortunately!) that nursery rhymes are like “rounded pebbles” on a beach, which are also perfectly matched to their own rhythms, those of the sea.

And we all love fun and games, whether we call the opportunities to indulge in them “playgroup activities” or “corporate dinner parties”. As the twin baby boys show, and as argued in a previous post, learning languages need not be the boring, hassled struggle that has shaped its off-putting reputation. We just need to understand that the way to make languages ours is to give ourselves the chance to engage with them hands-on, not just with our minds but principally with our bodies. Making languages ours is what enables us to use them, ourselves. This is also what makes us intelligible to other users. I’ll talk about intelligibility, next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: I hate that guy.” Saturday 4th June 2011.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Speaking out of tune

Using languages has physical effects on their users. When we become seasoned speakers of a language, the gymnastics of speaking it sets our vocal organs into the specific posture that characterises that language, just like our body otherwise sets in the specific ways through which we regularly tone it. When we become seasoned speakers of several languages, we naturally switch vocal posture as we switch language.

There are audible parts of these postures: this is why we say that some languages sound breathy, or throaty, or teethy (they don’t, their speakers do, but that’s exactly the point). There are visible parts too, although most of what’s going on in vocal posturing takes place inside your vocal tract: the lips, mouth and/or jaw of speakers of the same language (variety) may set in similar configurations. That this reflects the habitual way of using a language, and so the optimally cost-effective posture to speak it, is something that much/most/?all school language teaching and learning bypasses. 

In 1964, Beatrice Honikman gave us the first principled description of what she called Articulatory settings, the title of an article later reprinted in a collection edited by Adam Brown, Teaching English pronunciation. A book of readings. George W. Grace, in a piece titled Why I do not believe in phonemes, draws on French and English to observe what must surely be familiar to all of us who use different languages regularly: different articulatory settings are what makes it “hard to pronounce a French word in an English sentence without either pausing to get one’s speech organs set for the task or pronouncing it with an English accent.”

Accent-wise, school language learners get short-changed on another count: they’re not taught to sing their new languages, and probably not even told that languages need to be sung in order to make sense. Prosody, the melody of speech without which speech is no speech, is not a standard component of curricular language subjects either, despite common awareness that people mean what they say through their choice of tone of voice, as much as through their choice of words and grammar.

Ignoring language-specific articulatory settings and language-specific melodies in language teaching is, to my mind, the reason why school learners end up speaking their new languages out of tune: they are not initiated in the art of fine-tuning their vocal instruments to fresh musical scores.

As far as prosody is concerned, one reason for this state of affairs has to do with misconceptions about what prosody is and does. Prosody is not just ornamental, or a simple vehicle of emotions that users of different languages can express in similar ways through it: prosody does express states of mind and feelings, but so do vocabulary and grammar. In all cases, you need to know which words, or which grammar, or which intonation, means what you want to say. Each language has unique prosodic patterns, those features of rhythm, tempo, pitch, loudness, that make you recognise a language from afar, in a crowded place, without being able to make out one single word of it, from among the surrounding din. The prosody of a language has its own grammar, as it were, which needs to be learned as such.

The other reason for the neglect of prosody in school language teaching is that this teaching favours printed forms of language – on paper, whiteboards, computer screens – which were not devised to represent prosody. The prestige that sticks to print then goes full-circle to lead us to believe that whatever is not, or cannot, be represented through it must be irrelevant, language-wise. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can call someone a %$#*@ without offending them, and insult them with ❦❀☺♥ words instead. You can even make words mean their opposite, for example when you choose to demolish someone’s intellectual abilities by calling them brilliant. It all depends how you say it.

The effects, on both communication and communicators, of not understanding how people say it in a newcomer language, and of not knowing how to say it in it, have kept me busy for a long time, and made me dedicate one major academic piece to them. This is an issue of intelligibility, to which I’ll return in future posts, because understanding and making yourself understood is what we learn and have our languages for.

In order to speak a language, you need to get its music right, and the vocal choreography that matches it. You can only achieve this through practising, which may well be the reason why children do get it right: they’re given time, and they take their time, to practise their use of their languages. Perhaps a close look at what children do with their language learning may help us see later language learning in a different light. This is what I propose to do in my next post.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Learning to speak in tune. Saturday 28th May 2011.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Big multilinguals

Too many cooks spoil the broth, as they say. And too many speakers spoil the language, others might want to add. Just like proper broth-cooking should have a single signature, proper language-speaking should stick to one recipe.

This must sound familiar: these people don’t know how to speak; youths can’t use X (where X = the name of any language shared by different generations of users); newspaper headlines make a joke of spelling/grammar/vocabulary; and, not least, sms-es & Co. are ruining Y (where Y = the name of any language used in sms-es & Co.). I’ll come back to issues of electronic uses of language, but what I want to say here is that these cris du cœur mean to protect one victim (the language) from its many, many encroachers (the language users).

Here’s an intact language:

Photo: Schellack (Wikimedia Commons)

  And here are many speakers doing their best to ruin it:  

Since all of us are users of some victim, but only some of us are harassing it at any given time or place, depending on who’s accusing, “the” language that is being injured in each case cannot be “the” language: it must be the bits and pieces of it that don’t match the accuser’s, and that accusers usually identify as the only decently usable ones. Kate Burridge had a few things to say about how encroachers are viewed (which also tell us a few things about the viewers themselves) in Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: taboo and purism. We’re talking lèse-majesté here.  

Among these Barbarians at the Gate, to use Patricia Donaher’s label, big multilinguals, those of us who are “late” learners of new languages, make up the vanguard. Being multilingual means that all your languages are available to you, all the time. Unlike condiments in a recipe, you can’t choose to remove one or the other of your languages when using language. Maybe this necessary flavouring is what makes some tempers boil over “improper” uses of “their” languages, as if there were copyright on the victims. And maybe the rise in temperatures has to do with similar effects to the one that Ingrid Piller reports in Can foreign languages drive you crazy?. It all makes us wonder whether the (nowadays, also) English word pizza, to give but one example, is evidence of a spoiled English broth or of a tastier one.

Spoiling languages, by which I mean the concept “spoiling languages”, only makes sense when you think of languages as products, ready-made, well-defined objects that can deteriorate and so need preservation. All languages do feature preserved bits, whose role is precisely to go on being preserved, like greetings, formulaic expressions, proverbs, idioms – and, importantly, nursery rhymes, about which I will have something to say in future. Preserving languages is, in turn, one of the reasons we create libraries and databases (where we can also keep cooking recipes), but that’s hardly the job of language users. If pickled language were recommended use, it would be difficult to understand why it has become customary to give prizes to creative language users.

Little multilinguals, like little monolinguals, must rank amongst the most creative users of language (where creative = PC-speak for ‘error-prone’). Big multilinguals too, for whom their new languages are as new. One difference is said to be that if little ones say falled for “fell”, they’re being cute and adorable because they’re on temporary respite from proper linguistic behaviour: they’ll grow out of it. Whereas if big ones say the same, they’re (being) wrong and the prospect is bleak. I see common ground here instead: falled-uses bode well because they mean that the learners have both found a pattern (-ed endings attach to certain kinds of words) and found themselves able to use it (fall is one of those words).

To me, the real difference between little language learners and big ones is that the former start their learning from the beginning: children learn to sing their languages before they learn to speak them. Not in the bel-canto sense of singing, but in the sense that nobody talks without voice modulation, the so-called melody of speech, that very few people seem to pay any attention to, whether in comments about “proper” use of languages, or about child and adult language learning. I’ll try to work out why, next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Speaking out of tune. Saturday 21st May 2011.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Why not learn another language? How about Chinese?
=Guest post=

by Irma Lachmund

We just need to spread the word a bit better about the joy and enrichment that language learning brings to our lives! My 12-year-old boy has been accepted into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Academic Languages Program, at Mount Lawley Senior High School in Perth, Western Australia. School commenced in early February and Chinese is becoming the latest addition to the languages in our family.

My daughter has been a participant in this program in the past two years, going into year 10 now. She has the luck of being allowed to learn two languages since year 8. Tuition in German is part of the GATE program and she chose Italian as other language within the normal school curriculum. She is doing well and received highest marks for both languages, most likely assisted by the fact that we speak German at home despite living in Australia.

Since 2010, only one language can be selected by students in the GATE program and there is only a choice between Italian and Chinese. As my boy has been learning Italian in Primary School for seven years and, like his fellow students, still cannot say much more than his name, age and what he likes doing after school, he decided to learn Chinese. He is a bit unsure about this journey, especially since his sister told him that many students complain about how hard it is to learn Chinese.

I have been interested in the Chinese language since a short trip to Hong Kong and Guangzhou in 1985. I spent two weeks with a friend in Central. To overcome language barriers with cab drivers, and to make sure that I got home ok, I was taught to say in Cantonese: “Please drive me to Kennedy Road number 37, at number 31 please turn right”. I have never forgotten this sentence and practice it now and then with Cantonese speakers that I meet in my life. Not always successful I might say, as my pronunciation surely changed significantly in the past 25 years, with this experience becoming more and more faded. But at least it always gets me a laugh and helps me to connect with the people I meet.

German is my mother tongue. Plattdeutsch, or Low German, a dialect, was spoken in our house during my childhood. This dialect was considered inferior, so the children were never addressed in that language but talked to in standard German, the language used for writing. Sadly, the dialect is now lost in the village where I grew up. I learnt English from year 5 and French from year 7 at school, as learning two languages at high school was and still is a normal part of the school curriculum in Germany. After finishing high school, I added some Italian in evening classes, as I liked the Italian lifestyle and wanted to complement the words that I picked up while on holidays there. At university, after my law degree, I studied Indonesian and even worked as a junior lawyer for the German-Indonesian Chamber of Trade and Commerce (Perkumpulan Ekonomi Indonesia-Jerman) in the late eighties. But all these languages use the same script and work in a similar way. If a German speaker reads aloud an Indonesian text and pronounces each word as if it was written in German, an Indonesian speaker is able to understand what has been said.

My decision to join my boy in learning Mandarin came from the heart.  

The three language learners in my family.
Photo: Irma Lachmund

I intend to work along the same workbook and use additional sites on the internet to complement the written words. My friend Dr Mandy Scott from Canberra has been involved in the Association for Learning Mandarin in Australia. She visited us with her mother a little while ago and we had a chat about whether it is really that hard to learn Chinese. Apparently, the time to acquire comfortable language speaking levels for English speakers has been estimated. People agree that Mandarin is among the languages most difficult to learn.

But I believe that we have the advantage of already knowing and speaking more than one language. Also I understand that the grammar of Mandarin is simple. Biggest hurdle for me so far is the school’s learning focus on the acquisition of written Chinese. I am sure we’ll deal with that. When we keep up the conversation in our daily language learning practice, we should be all right. In addition, my daughter’s best friend is a native Chinese speaker and we could arrange special tuition from her, or join Chinese language courses at publicly funded adult learning institutions, such as TAFE, or any of the private businesses. Also, Bilingual Families Perth compiled a list of useful online resources for the Chinese language learner, that we are checking out at the moment.

We have a plan, and encouraging experiences are available from across the ocean. Multilingual Living, a network of multilingual people based in Seattle, ran the Language Challenge 101, where individuals and whole families committed to learning a new language over 101 days. They had many participants and video logs of their experiences are available on the website. My boy’s Chinese knowledge is progressing quickly; as for me, I am far behind, but I am on my way.

People are having fun learning another language, within their own setting and at their own pace.
Irma Lachmund is the chairperson and founder of Bilingual Families Perth, a not for profit network of families with more than one language in Western Australia. She also authors a blog

© Irma Lachmund 2011

Next post: Big multilinguals. Saturday 14th May 2011.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

(Non-)native common ground

Suppose you get an email where your correspondent wrote:
Additional documentation can be download from this site.
And suppose you know this correspondent to be a native user of English, whether you yourself are one too or not. What would your reaction be? And now (you knew this was coming...) suppose you know that your correspondent is a non-native. Etc. etc.

My guesses are that, in the first case, you might attribute the glitch to, say, a slip of the keyboard. Or to the person having made a last minute decision to change the syntax of the sentence from, say, the active form You can download... to the passive, and then forgetting to add the missing bit where it should go. Or some other benign excuse. In the second case, you might note that your correspondent made a grammatical mistake. As expected, you might add. If you are a language teacher, you may even nod and conclude something like “probably due to incomplete learning”. If you and the person both happen to be non-native users of English and besides share a native language, you may additionally blush in utter embarrassment at this (further) evidence of your fellow citizens’ mangling of English. We tend to cringe most at features of our own language(s) that we detect in someone else’s. No excuses.

We also tend to let our expectations shape our judgements. Different reactions to identical native and non-native productions show that value judgements about language quality are seldom absolute. Things that are good, or bad, are good or bad to particular people. From particular people too: we do count on funny linguistic behaviour from non-native users of a language, but only if we know that they are non-natives. Matched guises experiments, which were first developed by W. E. Lambert and his colleagues to investigate Evaluational reactions to spoken languages, provide ample evidence of this.

The consensus has been, as Neriko Musha Doerr discusses in her book The Native Speaker Concept. Ethnographic Investigations of Native Speaker Effects, to think of native speakers as “ideal” language users, whose standards of correctness the (less-than-ideal) learners should strive to match. The assumption behind this requirement is that people need (or want) to learn languages in order to communicate with their native users.

Let’s see. First, the consensus. Less-than-ideal communication takes place among native users too, which casts some doubt upon the accuracy of the label “ideal” to describe the presumed all-round correctness of their uses. The American lawyer Clarence Darrow once vented similar vexations, about English: “Even if you do learn to speak correct English, whom are you going to speak it to?”. In addition, recommendations to use a language “the native way” beg the question “which way?”. Adopting a native model, the one on offer where the learner happens to be learning, does not secure successful communication with any native user. Taking English as example, a cursory look at any native section of IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive) should help quash the myth that native versions of a language vary minimally among themselves, standard versions included. The profusion of jokes, stand-up sketches and anecdotes out there, from natives about other natives, also does the job nicely. One of my favourites comes from the book In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, that a colleague brought to my attention (thank you, Judy!):
[Fermor is writing about his stay at an old Raj Government Guest House in India, 1976]
“The only other occupant was a nice sad chap from Perth, Western Australia, called Stan Hardisty, advising the Himalayan government about apple growing. We were dining together one night, talking about the faults of Indian fruit-tree planting and eating a blazing hot curry, when he put his fork down and said earnestly that they did not use enough spice, which seemed to me odd, as I was on fire. It took me some time to twig that he meant the Indians didn’t plant their trees far enough apart.”

Second, the assumption. Making oneself understood to the natives has been a historical necessity, as reported, for example, in the Missionary Linguistics series, and may remain so in a number of contemporary cases. This is not the case for a global language like contemporary English, as argued in a previous post. The issue is one of intelligibility, to which I’ll come back in future but, here too, it takes two to tango: you are (or not) intelligible to someone. Native speakers of global languages need to familiarise themselves with local native variants that differ from their own, if they wish to partake of the global cake (some of us would rather die locally than survive globally, but that’s a different story): one example, from 2008, comes from mobile phone technology. With human beings, going the extra mile is sometimes just a matter of gaining confidence in your ability to understand other users of your languages, as Tracey Derwing, Marian Rossiter and Murray Munro show in Teaching native speakers to listen to foreign-accented speech.

We have come to think of natives and non-natives as representing two significantly different kinds of language use because, well, we have kept ourselves busy looking for differences between the two. If we choose instead to look for similarities, the results may surprise us. It is as unfair, to the non-natives, to assign to them the brunt of communicative disruption as it is, to the natives, to portray them as glitch-free users of language. Ah!, the argument goes, but there is a crucial difference: you need native intuitions about a language in order to use it properly. Fair enough: the native English speaker who wishes you a Happy Birfday has birfday intuitions about how to say the word birfday. So, two questions – and please explain your answers: would you, the non-native, want to say birfday too, like a native? And if you, the non-native, already say birfday, like a native, will you need to revise your own intuitions about the pronunciation of this word?

I suppose I can offer another safe guess here: your answers will have to do with matters of opinion. Our attitudes towards factual uses of language leave us all, natives and non-natives alike, wondering which master to serve. Our opinions about learning languages, in turn, which bear on ever-elusive, moving targets constituted by “native standards”, have it as a well-nigh hopeless endeavour. But is it really that difficult to learn a new language? The next post, a guest post, tells us about this.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= Why not learn another language? How about Chinese?, by Irma Lachmund. Wednesday 11th May 2011.


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