Saturday 24 September 2011

Teaching languages vs. teaching learners

In the very first post of this blog, I stated my persuasion that many misconceptions about multilingualism stem from our habit of assigning centre stage to languages and their properties, in matters of language learning, use and assessment. My persuasion is also that the main players in language matters are people and their abilities.

What I mean is this: teaching properties of languages, that is, the “grammar” of languages, is a fine, time-honoured educational goal. Just like we need to understand what angles, friction and sepals are, we need to understand what phonemes, metaphor or subjunctives are. I even do this for a living. But this kind of knowledge is a different kind of knowledge from the one that enables us to use angles, metaphors or subjunctives. Likewise, you don’t attempt to teach someone to cook by describing recipes to them. It’s the cooking and the languaging that make a proficient cook and a proficient language user, respectively.

Saying that we’re teaching languages when we’re in fact teaching their grammar, the grammar of their sounds included, has one side effect: we end up persuaded that languages possess some kind of “integrity” which keeps being threatened by monolingual and multilingual users alike. For language learners, this results in learner uses being labelled with learning-unfriendly terms like “second” and “foreign”, which refer to differences instead of similarities, and thus highlight stumbling blocks instead of know-how.

I can give a few examples, from my experience as both a language learner and a language teacher. If English, say, is your only language so far, and you wish to learn Mandarin, you may become persuaded that Mandarin tones are not for you because English “has” no tones, forgetting that tones draw on pitch and that we all use pitch in our languages in one way or another; or if Portuguese is your choice of new language, you may come to think that you can’t say psicose with [ps] because you say ‘sychosis with [s], and not think that you can and do say [ps] in English in a word like caps. English “does not have” nasalised vowels either, so you may well be told that you can get away with pronouncing French words like tant, ton, teint as ‘taunt’, ‘tonne’, ‘taint’, more or less as they are spelt, because spelling pronunciations, those following the spelling conventions of the languages that you are used to read, are generally expected from language learners. If no French-speaking person understands you, no problem: just produce paper and pen, or a mobile device where you can type things, and write the words that you can spell but cannot say. Everyone will appreciate your efforts, because literacy skills in a new language are also generally expected to beat spoken skills.

Cartoon © Dinusha Uthpala Upasena
In Cruz-Ferreira, M. Multilinguals are ...?

Focus on the languages is also what, to my mind, spawned the view of accent training as addition and/or reduction. The rationale seems to be that some accents “have” bits and pieces which can be missing or superfluous in other accents, respectively. But languages, and accents, cannot “have” things. Stating, as we do informally, that a language “does not have” a particular voiced fricative, say, does not entail that speakers of that language cannot pronounce that voiced fricative. All of us can produce voiced sounds and all of us can produce fricative sounds, so producing a particular voiced fricative is a matter of making it clear to learners that they’ve already got the voiced bit and the fricative bit, and what they need to do is to work from there to put both bits together.

Daniel Silverman, in his 2006 book A critical introduction to phonology. Of sound, mind, and body, points out that, when we speak, we are not targeting ideal “phonemes” that live in our minds, but targeting articulations which make our speech intelligible to other users of the same language. That is, we target vocal tract gestures, and all human beings come equipped with vocal tracts. It is the coordinated effect of these gestures which makes up what we call, informally, “the sounds of a language”.

Focusing away from the language in “language learning” to focus instead on the learning means focusing on the learner: we learn by drawing on what we already can do, so that we know what we need to do. Learner accents are not the problem, they are part of the solution of acquiring an intelligible use of a new language. But there is a snag: unless you, as a language learner, enrol in a dedicated pronunciation course, part of the self-fulfilling prophecy that new accents are beyond learners is the common practice of tucking away pronunciation instruction at the very end of language textbooks – if, that is, pronunciation is part of a textbook at all. As if to make sure that, in case there is no time to finish the syllabus (which is another interesting issue), pronunciation will be the thing you are bound to skip. I’ll leave this for next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Vocal gestures. Saturday 1st October 2011.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Multilingual accents

When you’ve made a decision to start learning a new language, and you’ve started putting your good intentions into practice, chances are that someone (you yourself included) will come to find fault with your accent in that language. Chances are also that whoever finds fault will also find swift solace in the accepted knowledge that you are simply being a typical language learner.

It could be, for example, that you are past your linguistic prime, so it is only natural that you are unable to learn a new language properly, where “properly” means ‘without an accent’. The languages that you speak may also be too different from the one you’re attempting to learn, or too similar to it (self-fulfilling arguments tend to work both ways), so it is also natural that you are unable to manage linguistic features with which you are unfamiliar, or too familiar.

Unable and linguistic features are the key words here. Language learners are said to fall short of “proper” language learning because languages are said to “have” features which apparently override human abilities. I find this reasoning extremely amusing: it’s like saying that Westerners can’t eat Chinese food properly because Chinese culture “has” chopsticks and Western culture doesn’t. It’s like saying that you’re doomed to the usual patronising, politically correct comments about your accent, which is “naturally” part of your identity, or of your human rights in your new language, and so on, even if you insist that you want to sound like the identity-less, right-less and, naturally, accentless speakers that you hear on tape in your language lab. This reasoning, naturally, also provides whoever invokes it with patronising, politically correct excuses for not doing anything about your accent.

Accents left on their own stay where they are, and become what is known as fossilised accents. The word “fossilised”, according to one dictionary I have handy, means ‘antiquated, fixed or incapable of change or development’. Which, to me, is a pithy definition of the kind of target accents one keeps finding in language courses, decade after decade. Fossilised pronunciation thus seems to be a good thing for model accents, but a bad thing for learner accents. What is wrong with learner accents may well be that they don’t sound quite like the one that textbooks happen to have on offer, an issue addressed in a previous post concerning English. I agree that it can’t be easy to de-fossilise an accent by attempting to re-fossilise it into a different fossil. But I don’t see why learning to eat with chopsticks should be beyond any of us.

The clash of the fossils, to my mind, arises from a misunderstanding of what is going on in language learning. Language learners are (becoming) multilingual, whereas textbook-modelled accents are monolingual. This is why you, the learner, will naturally acquire multilingual accents in your new languages, and probably in your old ones as well, just like monolinguals acquire monolingual accents in their languages. This is not a problem about learner accents, in that there need be no difference between monolingual and multilingual accents. But you won’t “become a native speaker”, a wish sometimes expressed by some of my students, the reason being that you can’t become a monolingual. One additional reason is that it will be you doing the speaking in your new languages, not someone else.

Speech sounds, and therefore accents, do not exist in our languages, they exist in our bodies. This is the argument I made, from a phonetician’s perspective, in a 2009 article with the same title as this post, Multilingual accents, and this is the argument that Rebekah Maggor makes, from her perspective as an actress, playwright, and voice and speech specialist, in her just-published paper Empowering international speakers: An approach to clear and dynamic communication in English. The accent(s) that we have, the ways in which we already use our vocal tracts, are assets to work with, not liabilities to work away from.

Learning languages is what makes us multilingual, but languages cannot be multilingual: people can. I’ll have some more to say about this next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Teaching languages vs. teaching learners. Saturday 24th September 2011.

Saturday 10 September 2011

Accent cosmetics

The British cartoonist and caricaturist George du Maurier had the following to say about language, in his 1891 novel Peter Ibbetson:
Language is a poor thing. You fill your lungs with wind and shake a little slit in your throat, and make mouths, and that shakes the air; and the air shakes a pair of little drums in my head – a very complicated arrangement, with lots of bones behind – and my brain seizes your meaning in the rough. What a roundabout way, and what a waste of time.
Long-winded convolution it may be, but, as far as the production of speech is concerned, one could also say that shaking air and making mouths is pretty much it. All of us who use spoken languages do this, because this is what producing spoken languages through human vocal tracts is all about.

Phonation and articulation (the fancy names for ‘shaking and mouthing things around the vocal tract’) give us the accents that we all have, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual. Like the remainder of our languages, our accents are those of other people, that we came to make ours. Some of us may spend our whole lives sounding the way we did when we first started making intelligible sounds, without knowing, or caring, that we sound in particular ways. Some of us may become aware that we do sound in particular ways and others sound in other ways. We may then want to go on sounding the way we always have, or we may want to adopt new ways of sounding. The choice to do one or the other is often discussed together with something called “identity”, a word that usually, and intriguingly, crops up in its singular form, for reasons I’ll attempt to work out some other day. Feeling a need to do cosmetics to our accents, whether in a new language or in a new variety of a language that we already speak, means wishing to sound like different people from the people we have so far sounded like. But it still means sounding like people. People who, like us, have vocal tracts.

Wanting to sound like someone else is like wanting to start a workout programme. The raw material is there, what makes the difference is the training. Our bodies, vocal tracts included, naturally set into the habits we’ve trained them to set into. Aspiring joggers, say, won’t go much beyond aspiring by investigating which body parts they should move where, when and how, and by satisfying themselves of the results which can be achieved by doing so. Likewise, speakers won’t change their speech simply by being relayed information on (how to talk about) the anatomy and physiology of vocal tract parts. Understanding how things work is the intellectual bit of learning, which, as far as languages are concerned, has become near-synonymous with learning them. Add to that the fixation with print found in most formal schooling, which persuades us that languages are visual things, and it is easy to understand why we all forget to use our ears, and the remainder of our bodies, when we set our minds to learning languages.

Speaking languages engages our bodies. To see what I mean about vocal tract workouts, have a look and a hear at The Diva and the Emcee, produced by the University of Southern California (Electrical Engineering and Linguistics). This other video has no sound, so you may try to guess what the speaker is saying. And yes, that massive thing bumping all over the place inside your mouth is your tongue. Small wonder languages came to be known as “tongues”, right?

So how do we change habits? Well, human bodies come to jog and human vocal tracts come to sound when humans practise jogging and sounding. Watching and listening do help, in that our so-called mirror neurons have been found to activate motor brain centres when we do so. But watching and listening help only as much as watching a play you wish to be able to perform, or listening to a song you wish to be able to sing. As the videos above show, we can’t see most of what goes on inside vocal tracts. In addition, eyes and ears can trick one another, as the McGurk Effect also shows.

Changing habits is all about doing new things. This is what makes you realise that you have muscles (and joints, and tendons) that you had no idea were there, and this is what makes you wake up one morning doing what you never thought you were able to do. For better or for worse, of course: when I started speaking Swedish, my English-speaking friends reported to me that I had also started speaking English with a Swedish accent. Good news, all in all: to paraphrase Blaise Pascal’s aphorism, in his Pensées, “Le corps a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît pas”.

Wanting to sound like someone else requires willpower in an additional sense: the commitment to dismiss the usual naysayer arguments that you’re too old to be able to learn new tricks, or that the languages and/or accents that you already speak are too different from the one(s) you wish to speak, or (my special favourite) that your accent has “fossilised”. I’ll talk about this next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Multilingual accents. Saturday 17th September 2011.


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