Wednesday 19 September 2012

Vocal versatility and vocal fossilisation

Vocal versatility, described as the ability to make your vocal tract do whatever you want it to do, is usually discussed in connection with professional voice users. In contrast, vocal fossilisation, described as the inability to make your vocal tract move beyond what you’ve grown used to move it for, is usually discussed in connection with language learners. This makes it sound like vocal tract users neatly divide into distinct subspecies, skilled and unskilled, respectively. The point I wish to make here is that vocal versatility and vocal fossilisation are related, because as far as vocal uses are concerned, we’re all pros.

The first observation is that we all come equipped with the same vocal tract model. Since all languages are equally difficult to pronounce – or equally easy, if your outlook on life tends towards optimism – because each language has a signature sound to it, the second observation is that the way we sound relates to the uses to which we put our vocal equipment, rather than to the equipment itself. In the literature on language learning, the (mortifying) label fossilisation stands for ‘routine vocal behaviours’. From learners, as said. For some reason, the word doesn’t apply to petrified accent models that the corporate textbook industry continues churning out, as I’ve argued before.

Routine behaviours are automated and taken for granted to such a degree that you come to believe that they cannot be characterised as specific behaviours at all, and so that there is nothing that can be changed about them because they’ve never changed, as far as you can remember. But fossilised behaviours, vocal or otherwise, are in fact acquired behaviours. For language learning, the issue is then to identify the steps through which we all learned to condition our natural vocal versatility in order to sound proficiently fossilised in at least one language. We could also call this the ways in which we learned to speak with intelligible accents.

Let me try to explain what I mean with an analogy: dancing.

Image © Tannon Weber (Wikimedia Commons)

Getting our steps right involves training muscles and coordinating their movements to match specific rhythms. There is a very similar choreography going on in our vocal tract whenever we speak and, like actors and opera singers, we learners need a choreographer, whom we could also call our language teacher, to help us get our vocal movements right. Teaching you how to get things right doesn’t mean teaching you the technical jargon used to describe vocal tract actions, which is familiar to language teachers. You don’t need to know a third conditional by name either, in order to use it appropriately – an issue that I’ll address some other time. Teaching you means making you aware of what you do and what you can do, when you speak those languages you’re comfortable speaking, so that you become aware of what you need to do, in order to sound the way you want to sound in your new languages: you’ll need “a guided tour of your vocal tract”, and you can treat yourself to a preview of what this feels like in Chapter 5 of my book The Language of Language.

As with dancing lessons, the age at which you start your vocal training programme is irrelevant, and so is the alleged brain shutdown which is allegedly restricted to language learning. Learning means instructing your brain to work in ways that it hasn’t worked before. With competent guidance, and lots, and lots, and lots of practice, your brain will follow suit because that’s what brains do. One day you’ll wake up in the morning to find out that your vocal tract remembers things that you don’t remember teaching it to do, and that you had no idea it could do. But it could do them.

The training of your vocal skills through awareness of your vocal skills is routinely available to professional voice users. But unlike these professionals, who only need to give the impression that they can speak the languages that they’re speaking onstage, we amateurs learn languages because we need to speak them in real life. This is also why we need real-life guides to assist us in our learning: if we learn to samba and to speak from printed images, we’ll samba and speak like printed images.

The next post deals with a strange conception which, to my mind, could only have become a standard conception in matters of language teaching and learning if one assumes that language teaching and language learning proceed, by default, through printed materials.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Unconnected speech? Saturday 29th September 2012.

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