Saturday, 4 May 2013

Rhythm clues and glues

My previous post discussed the role of prosody in signposting linguistic information. This post deals with the second reason why prosody matters: it helps us remember linguistic information, by glueing together the bits and pieces of language which are meaningful together.

Many years ago, I had this phone number which, according to local phone number pronunciation conventions, was 80-48-03, where the dashes indicate a “chunking” break. We said the name of each digit, by the way, “eight zero-four eight-zero three”. These things vary, too: I’ve lived in places where the norm would be to say “eighty-forty eight-zero three”, for example. Now, I happen to have difficulty remembering numbers in general, not just my own phone numbers because I don’t call myself all that often, as the joke goes. In any case, the standard spoken layout of this phone number didn’t help me. I then happily realised that 804803 can also be chunked as 804-803. Much easier to remember. So the next time I answered the phone, which we did by stating the phone number, I said “804-803”. The caller fell silent, then: “Sorry, is this 80-48-03?” My turn to fall silent. You get the picture, right? Same “word”, different prosodies: we might as well have been speaking different languages.

Wink-wink to those of you who, like me, were reminded of alphabet songs, here. In both cases, we have a random sequence of items which nevertheless makes sense to those in the know. ‘Random sequence of items which nevertheless makes sense to those in the know’ is a good definition of any spoken language. The thing is that when we chunk apparently random things together we’re signalling that they’re not random after all: these chunks carry meanings. As with my phone number, different chunking may impair intelligibility – or carry different meanings. Take this classic example of disambiguation of print through prosody (or of the uselessness of print to carry prosodic meaning, if you prefer): what does “This is how small shops should be” mean? We’re not speaking different languages when we chunk this utterance in different ways, but we’re saying different things – which is also what we do when we use different languages.

Chunking language as we speak is what makes it memorable, too. Rhythmical beats “stick”. Carolyn Graham, musician, writer, teacher, and teacher trainer, explains why. She developed jazz chants to use in her language teaching because, as she puts it in her website, “The brain loves rhythm. This means memory.” Brains love anything else which makes sense to their owners: Carolyn Graham’s other major insight about language teaching is that the language used in the classroom must be real, useful and appropriate to the learner.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s used songs as a sure-fire way of learning the rhythmical clues of my new languages. It turns out that singing assists language relearning, too, for those of us who have lost our language(s) through trauma or disease. Gottfried Schlaug’s research, at his Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory, reports how music helps “glue” together damaged and/or disordered parts of the brain into recovery of language: we seem to be able to sing word chunks that we are unable to speak, for example.

Why do speech melodies have this effect on us? The simple answer is that we’re natural singers and dancers because we can’t help it: we’re born that way. We’ve known about this for quite a while. Jean-Pierre Lecanuet, for example, in a 1999 book chapter titled ‘Foetal responses to auditory and speech stimuli’, reviews previous literature reporting that “a large number of speech components – mostly, but not only, the prosodic ones – are transmitted to the amniotic milieu” (p. 340). The whole book, Perceptual Development, edited by Alan Slater, offers reviews and reports of early research on this topic.

The so-called “effortless” language learning claimed of children may well appear “effortless” because children are having fun: they sing and dance, involving their whole body in their learning. All of us, in other words, know how to involve ourselves with our languages in this way from the very beginning. It may not sound so outlandish, then, to suggest that language teaching methodologies embrace these natural human skills to help us practise our new languages from the very beginning, too. My take is that all of us learn best when we’re having fun learning.

You may be wondering now where the “missing link” is: jazz chants and babies? Here it is. Ten years ago, one of the students in my Child Language courses was struck, as a musician, by the similar makeup of scatted and babbled syllables (I hope you’re reading this, Ben!). He went on to produce a thesis, titled The Phonology of Scat Singing which, to my knowledge, is the first research piece ever to put together scatting, baby babble, and English phonology.

Image © Clipart from

When we invented our languages, we made them melodic because this was the natural thing to do. It’s the melody which signals and glues together the lexical and grammatical bits and pieces which we’ve come to (mis)represent as “languages”. So how do we sing our names in different languages? The next post has something about this.
Lecanuet, J.-P. (1999). Foetal responses to auditory and speech stimuli In A. Slater (Ed.), Perceptual development. Visual, auditory and speech perception in infancy (pp. 317-355). Hove: Psychology Press, Ltd.

© MCF 2013

Next post: Multilingual names. Saturday 18th May 2013.

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