Thursday, December 08, 2011

In the last couple weeks in the pronunciation lab, now that we're past the initial curriculum of the three parts of stress, word reductions, and linking (and why spoken English sounds nothing at all like written English) we've been moving into sentences, sentence meaning and emphasis patterns. The idea that I can take a sentence like "I never said she stole my money." and depending on where I place the emphasis, the meaning of the sentence changes. So as, "I never SAID she stole my money...(I implied it)." Or, "I never said she stole my MONEY...(I said she stole my pride)." Pronunciation wise, the work is not so much the meaning (which is fairly evident from our animal ability to read emotional nuance) as much as what emphasis sounds like; how to embody these little melodic patterns in ways that are clear and comfortable.

To do this, we need not just CAPITAL LETTERS, but some pretty sophisticated recognition skills. For example, "Did you eat breakfast yet?" sounds more like "J'eet breakfast yet" when we're out there in the "real world." We talk fast and not so clearly. In the latter version, I only actually hear two words: breakfast and yet. The first part of the sentence I hear as a cluster of sound, one that I've heard before many times and can recognize as meaning "did you eat," like a word in itself: j'eet. Now, I'm not going to get into the hardcore linguistics theory about what all this could mean (in part because I don't know the hardcore linguistic theory about what all this could mean) but what's interesting to me is the idea that we don't actually listen all that carefully to what each other is saying. Instead we only hear a few key words, and assume the rest.

I don't know if this is cultural, or having specifically to do with American English, or 2011, or internet conditioned attention spans, but it's hard to put in the necessary time and energy to actually listen to what a person is saying. And at the same time it's hard to say exactly what we mean to say. The non-native speaker wonders, how is it that they can understand each other, because I could only make out a few words....The answer, unfortunately, is that we don't actually understand each other all that well. You could look at American politics or the one billion and one forms of dysfunction we're immersed in and come to the same conclusion. Whereas, on a micro-scale, like a dog tearing after a squirrel twenty yards away but ignoring the sparrow flitting around in front of its nose (unless it's a bird dog but that's another story), we don't see what we're not looking for. And we don't hear what we're not listening for. My point is, it's hard to listen.