By Elsa O'Brien

01 December 2021 - 16:00

Smiling baby listening through headphones
Photo by Alireza Attari on Unsplash

English language teacher, Elsa O'Brien says adult language learners can learn a lot about pronunciation and intonation from the way babies learn language.

In most English courses, pronunciation is given less time compared to other skills. Particularly neglected is ‘suprasegmental’ pronunciation, which covers speech features beyond the individual sound: it covers syllables, words and sentences and their tone, stress, pitch and rhythm. This type of pronunciation is very difficult to learn, which is probably one of the reasons why it is neglected in teaching.

Unfortunately, suprasegmental pronunciation is very important. As Fazle Muniem very clearly describes in his article, intonation can carry a great part of the meaning of an utterance. It will be a cue as to how to respond to our fellow speaker. It changes depending on whether the information shared is new or known by both speakers. It shows the speaker’s mood and it is different when we ask a question, depending on whether we’re looking for a ‘yes/no’ answer or for more detailed information. 

Intonation will indicate a question or agreement in some cases, and even the number of pauses in a sentence can change its meaning. 

Intonation is important in every language, but more so in some than others. The English language is not as flexible as other languages in which a change in word order will indicate the relevance of a part of a sentence over the rest. As a result, intonation becomes a very important communication tool in English.

Some English learners might be thinking, how can I possibly bear in mind all these intonation rules and nuances while getting my vocabulary, word order and grammar right? 

It's a well-known fact that achieving native-like pronunciation, if that is the learner's goal, takes a greater effort from adults than children or teenagers. 

In her book The Phonology of English, Jennifer Jenkins shares her belief that suprasegmental pronunciation is not teachable to adults in the classroom. While studies show that certain aspects of a second language such as pronunciation are much more easily acquired at a young age, Jenkins doesn’t claim that tone, stress and rhythm cannot be learned by adults. What she explains is that they can be acquired through extensive exposure to the language outside the classroom.

When interacting with babies and toddlers, we realise we can understand a lot of what they are trying to say by paying attention to their intonation, body language and the context. We can easily tell when a baby is asking a question from the change in their intonation. Babies can ‘sing’ their favourite songs, babbling very recognisable tunes while still incapable of articulating the actual words. 

There is much evidence that indicates babies are listening to pitch movement as early as week 26 in the womb. You might be thinking 'no wonder children can acquire intonation so quickly!  We were all children once, weren’t we? This discovery should give us a few years’ advantage!’

I’m afraid it doesn’t. What researchers actually believe is that children use different cognitive processes to learn intonation. Ioup and Tansomboom realised in their study that, when asking some students to imitate the intonation of a number of sentences, tone was one of the first areas to be mastered by children, but it was one of the latest to be acquired by adults.

However, they also observed that, when asked to carry out a humming task, these adult students were able to reproduce native-like, or close to native-like intonation. When imitating the intonation contour of words and just focusing on this, adults were not paying attention to other linguistic aspects such as grammar or meaning.

This was a very encouraging discovery, as it meant that in the humming task adults were learning in the same way children naturally do. As babies and little children haven’t yet developed the cognitive framework to process other linguistic areas, they process the melodic contour of what they hear using the right hemisphere. This hemisphere is non-verbal. It is the one to do with emotion, patterns, intuition and holistic perception. 

On the contrary, adults' whole set of linguistic skills will lead us to process any new language we learn using the left hemisphere, which is verbal, analytical, detail oriented and cautious. 

This kind of less holistic unintuitive processing will play against us when trying to perceive and replicate the tone and rhythm that are part of a sentence. We'll try to break it down and analyse it, to find a logic to it, but these are not the right tools when it comes to modeling intonation.

However, there is still hope for adult learners. Ioup and Tansomboom conclude that we can be as good as babies when divorcing tone from language. We just need to put our right hemisphere at the service of language. Perhaps apart from the extensive exposure to a language that Jenkins recommends, singing and music should play an even greater part in the classroom curriculum and in the life of any language learner. 

Learners should approach language in the same way they do a favourite song. We just listen to it, enjoy it and relish the feelings it invokes in us. In most cases, we learn the lyrics and the tunes from sheer pleasurable repetition. 

Integrating music in language lessons might be challenging, but it could be very rewarding, for both teachers and students. 

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