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.

1 comment:

  1. What a beauty of a post! And what synchronicity we have! In fact, our syncopated thinking will continue since I will be posting a column in a couple of weeks that deals with one of the topics you explored in your book "Multilinguals...".

    Great, informative column as usual.

    Greetings from London.


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