Saturday 29 September 2012

Unconnected speech?

Unconnected, yes. I wonder: what do we mean when we talk about *connected* speech? We must mean that there is at least one other kind of speech, which is not connected, so that it makes good sense to talk about its connectedness at all. But I would very much like to know who uses it, unless we’re perhaps talking about the so-called one-word stage in child language development, when spoken utterances appear to consist of single words, or expecting speech to and from interlocutors who look like this:

“Klaatu... barada... nikto...”

Image © The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, via Wikipedia

Qualifying speech with the modifier connected also means that we somehow take “connected speech” as a special case of speech – or it wouldn’t need qualification by means of a dedicated adjective. This is the same kind of reasoning which identifies some people through the qualifier multilingual, thereby leaving it understood that there’s no need to identify in any special way whoever is not multilingual, because there’s nothing special about their lingualism. In the same way that monolingualism came to represent default lingualism, unconnected speech represents default speechiness. One language at a time is desirable linguistic behaviour, and so is one word at a time (whatever the word word might mean, incidentally, since nobody has ever come up with a satisfactory definition of what a “word” might be).

I wonder why. It could be that the only way we might hope to identify the words of a language is by looking at them (assuming, in turn, that we do know what “a language” might be, which is another big linguistic mystery). If you listen to a language you never heard before, chances are you’ll have serious trouble attempting to single out its words (assuming, in turn, that all spoken languages have words, which is yet another moot question). If you see a spoken language, you may have better luck. Printed representations of speech, for those languages which have them, may show spaces separating what in some of them we’ve come to call words. Others won’t, because speech and whatever we choose to call its components cannot be adequately represented in print. It’s like attempting to represent a landscape in speech. It’s like putting a girdle on things. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but pictures of words tell you very little about the thousand different ways they are pronounced, even for those languages which may share printed representations that you recognise.

Take my language students, who mostly come to me after years of traditional vocabulary + grammar language learning, where “vocabulary” means lists of words (for what “grammar” means here, see my next post). They keep insisting that speech forms like wanna and doesn’t, or j’sais pas and t’as vu, or fàchavor and tá bem, are “bad” language. They keep reminding me that even native speakers of their new languages tell them that they use their language “better”, because they learned it the “proper” all-words-in way, whereas natives tend to become “lazy” when speaking – more on which in a future post, too. And I might as well confess that some students thought better of having me as a teacher, given my tendency to attempt to wrestle pens and paper and books off their hands and concentrate on training speaking and listening. This for students who come to me because they, or their own language students, are unhappy about matters of intelligibility from and to users of their new languages.

I don’t blame them. In the textbooks that they were taught by, and taught to abide by, wannas and tá bens are either glossed over or treated in special chapters, whose titles include the phrase “connected speech” and which come after all the chapters dealing with speech forms which apparently need no special treatment and so must be the “real” speech forms. But how do you learn to understand and use a language by first spending chapters and years memorising and spelling out citation forms of visually unconnected words? To me, the disconnect between language teaching and language use is the problem: not that you say things like gonna and you’d and perhaps write them too, but that so many learners are not told that people say and write these things because this is how people speak their languages.

Next time, as promised, I’ll deal (sorry, I mean I will deal) with the “grammar” part of the traditional vocabulary + grammar language teaching methods.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Teaching *about* languages. Wednesday 10th October 2012.

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