nonverbal communication

Intonation, stress, and my Godiva chocolates

Posted on May 10, 2009. Filed under: American culture, celebrations, language, nonverbal communication | Tags: , , , , , |

I was woken up this morning with a lovely breakfast in bed for Mother’s Day. Actually, I had been up for about 10 minutes, and really wanted to pee and brush my teeth, but I thought it best to fake sleeping until I heard the rattle of the breakfast tray being carried down the hall by my beloved children, so as not to ruin their “surprise”.

One of my presents was a box of Godiva truffles,  which, by the way, I plan to finish before the end of the day. As I opened them, I saw Carlita looking longingly at the box.

“Would you like one?” I asked, with rising intonation, typical of a question asked in English. She smiled and took the coconut cream.

I looked at my husband. “Would YOU like one?” I asked, stressing the word you, because he doesn’t really eat sweets, and I wasn’t expecting that he would take it. ” Maybe later” he said.

Finally, I looked at Calvin, my teenage son who is capable of  inhaling the entire refrigerator at one sitting. “Would you like ONE?” I asked, stressing the word one, to let him know this was my candy, and I wasn’t giving it all away.

I had asked 3 people the same question, but each time it carried a very different meaning. Stress and intonation in English carry the bulk of the message, which is why English language learners often miss the subtle nuances in conversation. They tend to focus on the vocabulary and grammar. As native speakers, we all understood the differences in meaning  without an overt explanation. They also understood, without overt explanation, that they’d better not touch the raspberry dark chocolate one.

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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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