Thursday, February 25, 2016

Body rhythm: the key to good pronunciation (teaching)

Gradually, neuroscience is catching up with great teachers of speech (e.g., Lessac, 1984, 1997) and pronunciation (e.g., Morley, 1979; Gilbert, 2010). It turns out that it is more than just a phonaesthetic accident that, in English, we list 'Rhythm, Stress and Intonation'--in that order. In Morley (1979) and Gilbert (2010) and most other student texts "stress" (at the word, phrase and sentence level) is dealt with first. Gilbert does not mention rhythm explicitly in the table of contents but slips it in systematically throughout; Morley does rhythm second. Lessac (1984) begins by training the body to move in new ways to the rhythms of speech and only comes back to making sounds later.

(Literally) any experienced teacher who does pronunciation well believes in the centrality of rhythm to fluency, and probably much more, including memory and perceptual processing. The "problem" has always been that the best arguments for rhythm-based practices have been experience or affect (motivating or promoting "flexibility" in some sense). The best evidence today still comes from parallel fields. For example:
A new study examining synchrony in pairs of musicians by Zamm, Wellman and Palmer at McGill University, "Endogenous Rhythms Influence Interpersonal Synchrony"--in a more intelligible press release and in a ScienceDaily summary, "Find a partner who marches to the beat of your own drum: Group coordination is optimized between people with similar movement rates"-- provides a nice perspective on the place of rhythm in language teaching, and learning in general for that matter. In short, what they found was that those who have similar rhythms of speech and movement work better together. (So much for the "opposites attract" hypothesis!) Quoting Palmer in the SD summary:

"We think this could extend to interpersonal synchrony in other fields, such as recreational activities like jogging, where health benefits may be greatest when partners are matched for rates; or in education, when teachers and students are matched in conversational speech rates; and especially in sports, such as tennis doubles, pairs skating or team rowing," (Emphasis, mine.) 

Previous studies reported here and elsewhere have established that ability to move to a beat and perceive rhythm (but not simply tapping it out or clapping hands to it) seem to enhance skill or language engagement and acquisition, especially in children. The question, of course, is if, how and when adult learners (in class) can arrive at that synchrony and whether or not such coordination is more "innate" to individuals or can be taught. Lessac clearly believed and demonstrated the latter. Morley  and Gilbert see L2 rhythm as developing alongside or conforming to the L2 more gradually, or implicitly.

Whichever approach you take--and haptic pronunciation teaching is very much on the Lessac end of the continuum, requiring synchrony of body movement and rhythm continuously in instruction--to quote one of my father's musical icons (Duke Ellington): It don't mean a thing, if you ain't got that swing . . .

Gilbert, J. (2010). Clear speech (4th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lessac, A. (1997). The use and training of the human voice: A bio-dynamic approach to vocal life (3rd ed.). New York: Drama Book Specialists.
Lessac, A. (1984). Body wisdom: The use and training of the human body, New York: Drama Book Specialists.
McGill University. (2016, February 9). Find a partner who marches to the beat of your own drum: Group coordination is optimized between people with similar movement rates. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 25, 2016 from
 Morley, J. (1997). Improving Spoken English: An intensive personalized program in perception, Pronunciation, Practice in Context. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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