Thursday, December 27, 2012

The pitch for teaching prosody first

Clip art: Clker
There are numerous examples of methods where either intonation is taught first in pronunciation work or shortly thereafter using techniques such as "reverse accent mimicry" or computer assisted verbal tracking or imitating actors without attending to the meanings of words. Anecdotally, they all seem to work. From a research perspective, intonation or pitch change has been employed extensively in exploring neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain "learn" and adapt. For most learners, mimicking simple pitch contours in English is not that difficult. If you examine student course books, what you find is that they all include pitch contour work but where it occurs and how much is done seems completely random.

A new study by Sober and Brainard of UCSF (summarized by Science Daily) of how song birds correct their singing draws an interesting conclusion: they fix the little mistakes and ignore the big ones. The Bengalese finches provide us with an intriguing clue as to how to organize L2 pronunciation work as well: begin with the easy stuff--not the messy articulatory problems or complex phoneme contrasts or conflicts. The arguments for establishing prosody (intonation, rhythm and stress) first are compelling at one level (theoretically) but from the perspective of measuring tangible progress, it is still difficult at best to demonstrate what has been learned, given the tools we have available today.

Children clearly learn prosody first. (In the EHIEP system intonation is now in module four but I am considering introducing it earlier, in part based on this research.) Practically speaking, doing early prosody work is relatively straightforward and not costly. You can do it for a song, in fact.  

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