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.


  1. Do you have any tips on how to effectively practice the prosody of a target language? And how much time should be spent on it vs doing other activities in that language?

  2. I do indeed, Dominick. I'll have something to say about this in my next post, scheduled for Saturday 28th.

    Meanwhile, have you wondered why folk songs, and nursery rhymes, and folk dances are so "typical of each country", as we usually describe them? Try replacing "country" with "language", and you'll get a preview of what I mean.

    I'll also have a few thoughts about timing of prosodic practice in a new language, that is, when it makes sense to introduce it. The amount of time spent on it, as you ask, is a bit like the amount of time spent on developing, say, firm abs, or nimble fingering when playing the guitar: it will vary with each individual.



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