Saturday 8 September 2012

Vocal intelligibility

Making yourself intelligible involves awareness that you may not be intelligible, just like making yourself presentable involves awareness that you may not be presentable. This kind of awareness arises from exposure to different people and different situations, that is, from exposure to different intelligibilities.

As children, we develop our linguistic skills largely unaware that we are making ourselves intelligible, in the sense that we would not be able to explain what we are doing in so many words (there is a very significant difference between what you do and awareness of what you do, whether you’re using a mobile phone or speaking a language, more on which in a coming post). Nevertheless, monitoring and constructing intelligibility is exactly what typical language acquisition involves: we progressively learn to attune our inbuilt speech production and speech reception equipment (our vocal tracts and our ears) to uses which satisfy the speech reception and speech production counterparts, respectively, of those around us.

The key factor here, to me, is “those around us”. When children eventually end up sounding like those around them, that is, when they end up making everyday linguistic sense to and from those around them, their acquisition process is deemed complete (or “perfect”, as some analysts might prefer). It seems to me that the same applies to language learners across the board, because you learn a language in order to use it, and using a language means making it work for and with those around you. Barring disorder, we are all intelligible to someone and someone is intelligible to us, which means that intelligibility is not a feature of the speaker, or of the listener, but of what both end up negotiating in order to make sense. Just like there are no “ideal” speakers, there are no “ideal” listeners either – something to which I’ll come back soon too.

Intelligibility is also a feature of the here and now, because speaking and listening are bound by real-life settings, in place and time. One of my multilingual friends, who uses English for work-related purposes, has developed fluent understanding of Texan English from his Texan business partners. But only in one-to-one situations. When two (or more) Texans meet in his presence, all hell breaks loose, as he describes it – and not just because they eventually start talking about football (N.B.: not “soccer”) teams and other Texan entities unknown to him. Besides their vocabulary, they also change their accent and their overall ways of expressing themselves in English. They do this not because they want to exclude my friend (though some of us may sometimes deliberately want to adopt similar strategies for this purpose), but because it’s only natural to switch among the different ways of making ourselves intelligible that we’ve learnt to navigate along our lives. We all do this, we all can do this – if we so wish. Perhaps monolingual speakers, of English and other languages, will have similar stories to share?

My friend could also learn to understand and produce Texan in-house vocal ways – if he so wished. Users’ wishes are the reason why I believe that sticking to the one-standard-fits-all policies which go on guiding production of traditional language teaching materials makes little sense. I’m not saying that we should strive to prepare as many teaching materials as there are varieties of languages: this is as unrealistic a goal as attempting to make sense of multilingualism through cumulative descriptions of the number and the combinations of particular languages involved in each multilingual setting, as I noted before. I’m saying that textbook standards are best used as guidelines for what learners actually need. In some cases, the book-prescribed accent may match the learners’ needs. In other cases, learners may end up becoming unintelligible, for their purposes, precisely because they were trained to reproduce intelligibility in varieties of their new languages which fail to serve the reasons why they decided to learn a new language in the first place. And maybe this is one of the reasons why so many of us routinely get bad press about our “non-native” uses: maybe we’re just being differently native?

Since there are no ideal language users, there can be no ideal language uses either, unless by “ideal” we mean ‘flexible’: accommodation to accent variability is the key to intelligible speech production and perception, as I’ve argued in a paper titled ‘Multilingual accents’. So why not start in the classroom, because we have to start somewhere and because classrooms are where this whole business of language learning starts for so many of us? The next post has some more to say about this.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Vocal versatility and vocal fossilisation. Wednesday 19th September 2012.

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