The music of language

Posted on January 23, 2009. Filed under: nonverbal communication |

I love listening to the music of languages. Sometimes, I watch tv in a foreign language that I don’t understand, just so I can focus on the sounds, rhythm, intonation and musicality, without the meaning getting in the way.  Usually, I can guess what’s going on by the body language, tone and intonation. Sometimes, I close my eyes and let the music wash over me.

The reason people have accents when they speak a foreign language is because they are speaking with the music of their own language. They are using the intonation, rhythm and stress patterns of their mother tongue. The greater the differences between the native language and the second language, the more prominent the accent. That’s why Chinese speakers sound choppy when they speak English–they don’t use liaisons, which are so central to the music of English.  By the same token, people who speak English, which is not a tonal language,  may have a stronger accent when speaking Chinese or Thai, than when speaking Spanish, for example.

Often beginning ESL classes focus immediately on speaking, before the student can get a feel for the language’s music. When I teach ESL, especially at the beginning level, I have the students spend a lot of time developing listening  skills. Sometimes I have them draw a line  (like a heat beat monitor) as they listen, and then compare their drawings, to draw attention to the music of the language.

This woman obviously understands the music of a language.  Culturally insensitive? Nah. I think it’s hysterical.


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