Saturday, February 23, 2013

Grafting melodious bird song on to animal, utilitarian pronunciation

This is just too much to resist. Miyagawa, Berwick and Okanoya of MIT make an interesting observation, following on from comments by Darwin, summarized by Science Daily: " . . . human language is a grafting of two communication forms found elsewhere in the animal kingdom: first, the elaborate songs of birds, and second, the more utilitarian, information-bearing types of expression seen in a diversity of other animals." The choice of term there, the "grafting" metaphor, is worth unpacking a little. It is one used frequently by theorists who focus on a narrow piece of a process and then leave the clean up to somebody else, the implication being that something is inserted into or combined in the organism and then we just step back and watch it morph! I do want to get the full article and see where that line of argument goes.

Clip art: Clker
Let's run with that metaphor a bit and see how it relates to pronunciation teaching . . . Perhaps the way to approach pronunciation should, indeed, be to address the two functions, the melodic and "informational," more independently, from a "grafting" perspective in the learner, rather than seeking to actively integrate them. In other words, we should not be so concerned with how or whether the learner manages to wind up using the sounds or terms in spontaneous speaking or writing. (That is apparently somebody else's bailiwick.) We are probably talking prosody vs lexical-level word stress and related grammatical-morpho-phonemic changes in the pronunciation of a word. I recently got an email from a well-known colleague, that, in effect said precisely that: Our job is to provide guidance, rules and opportunity for practice--not get "all worked up about" integration into spontaneous speech.

In reality, that is what goes on in much of pronunciation instruction anyway: the two "levels" are treated in relative isolation; conscious practice and explanation of the two "communication forms" are integrated in the syllabus but not in the moment-by-moment in the classroom. Those that assume that the learner will then just go ahead and integrate things in his/her spare time or cognitive processing may be right. But I doubt it still.

Got to be a way to better graft our song and dance into our clinical practice . . .  

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