Thursday, 12 November 2009

Mother tongue

I read a fascinating snippet in La Dépêche du Midi the other day: according to the German medical anthropologist Kathleen Wermke, babies cry in the language their parents use.

She and her colleagues studied 60 two to five day old babies, 30 born into French-speaking families and 30 born into German-speaking families. They recorded 2,500 cries as mothers changed nappies, got the babies ready feeding or otherwise interacted with them. Acoustic measures allowed the researchers to identify 1,254 cries (a cry being 'a vocalisation produced with a single breath') that contained clear rising-and-falling arcs. German newborns’ cries tended to start out high-pitched and gravitate to increasingly lower pitches, whereas French newborns’ cries started out low-pitched and then moved higher. And those kind of intonation patterns, Wermke says, characterise words and phrases used by fluent speakers of German and French. Well yes, that certainly has a grain of truth in it. Take the word papa, for instance, found in both languages: the French pronunciation slightly stresses the final a so that the intonation rises, whereas a German will stress the first syllable so that it falls. And so on.

Apparently, in the last term of pregnancy, unborn babies become active listeners. Although the sense of hearing is the first to develop, the baby's sense of hearing while still in the uterus is restricted by the amniotic fluid - but what gets through are the melodies and sense of intonation of the mother's speech.

And although I have to admit to being at best ambivalent towards babies, never having had - or even for one moment wanted to have - one, that's the bit that fascinates the languageaholic in me. One thing I do know is that as a foreigner, it's much easier to make yourself understood if you have a good grasp of the 'music' of a particular language but a poorer grasp of its vocabulary and grammar than it is if you're ace at words and grammar but speak the language with the intonation of your own mother tongue.

For as long as I can remember I've picked up on the melodies of the accents of the areas I've lived in. I'm endlessly fascinated by them, and although I don't do it deliberately it takes me usually less than a week to subconsciously adapt my own speaking style to a local one. My Italian, for example, is despicable, but because I've spent more time in Tuscany than any other part of Italy I'm told that what little I can say I say with the Tuscan intonation. A week in South Shields earlier this year left me singing like a Geordie hinnie; and I can still slip into passable Narfock, Brissle, north Yorkshire, Sheffield and Dorset at a moment's notice given the right provocation.

So - rant coming up - why oh why oh why does the music of language continue to be largely ignored in foreign language teaching? Anyone?


Blog at Bardies said...

I think, possibly, Kalba, it's because the teaching of music itself is ignored. My daughter's French teacher is doing a study of the relationship between music and language and is firmly of the belief that musicians like her simply listen more effectively. We spend so much more time learning to speak or write a foreign language than we ever do just listening to it. I recommend Francoise Hardy!

Kalba Meadows said...

Hmm, interesting. If the teaching of music IS ignored now, that's very sad - when I was at school we all - even the non instrument players - had compulsory music appreciation lessons (which I'm sure we didn't appreciate fully at the time!). Although I never actually taught (long story) I did study and train as a French teacher, and although it was a typically 1970s progressive student-centred course, listening to the shape and sound of the language formed no part whatsoever of learning/teaching - as you say, it was all about getting straight into speaking and writing.
I'd be interested to know more about the study.
K x