Acquiring the Song of Speech

The landscape of our speech is textured with the peaks and valleys of prosody. Prosody is the melody of speech and refers to the emphasis we give to certain words in a phrase, and the way we chunk words into meaningful units. Most of us don’t have the kind of metaknowledge about what prosody is or means in the same way we might have an understanding of what a verb or a noun is. Yet the unique shape of prosodic contours in fact guides the meaning of our spoken message.

Consider how the sentences below differ in meaning as we vary the location of the pauses:

Varying where we place emphasis in a phrase can also yield a difference in meaning:

1. We encourage all passengers to pack KNIVES in their suitcases.
2. We encourage all passengers to pack knives in their SUITCASES.

Schools reinforce the standards of a given national language with grammar and writing exercises, vocabulary quizzes, spelling tests, and more.  But, prosody—an aspect of language we begin acquiring even in utero—is never addressed. Nor is prosody included as part of most traditional, second-language curricula or courses.

So, how do speakers acquire an aspect of speech so crucial to how the content of their message is delivered and interpreted? And, how can researchers evaluate these aspects and provide useful feedback to learners?

Rhythm is one of the components of prosody, and it refers to the alternating pattern of beats or stresses over time. One of the challenges for the second-language learner is not only acquiring the stress pattern of a given word—instiTUtion—but learning how these stress patterns combine in larger sequences of words and phrases.

In my post-doctoral position here at Rosetta Stone, I’m extending elements of my own research, explored in my recent dissertation on the acquisition of rhythm and prosody by second-language learners. Among other crucial questions, I’m investigating how the development of native-like rhythm differs from or compares with the development of other areas of speech production. I’m also examining the directionality of acquisition: Do learners acquire aspects of rhythm before acquiring other aspects of prosody?

We’re answering these and other questions by careful analysis of learner data that we track over time. Understanding this complex acquisition process will provide a window into how to provide more direct support to learners as they develop into increasingly competent speakers.

  • Stephanie Walsh

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article by Dr. Nava. Thank you for your insight and years of dedicated research. You are doing vital work in the field of linguistics for both present and future generations.

  • Geoffrey

    I wonder if there are people with learning disability or with some sort of brain damage who have less capacity for prosody than the rest of us. Is there a way to measure prosody? To teach it or improve the score in that measurement?

  • Emily Nava

    Hi Geoffrey,

    In response to your comments, yes, there are certain disorders and conditions where differences in prosody can be observed. An example of this is prosody in certain speakers with autism. Here is a useful link if you are interested in research in this area:

    And yes, prosody can in fact be measured. Certain characteristics like pitch (which correspond to the peaks and valleys of speakers’ intonation) can be measured, and one means of measuring rhythm is by measuring the duration of vowels.

    Thank you for your comment and your interest,

  • Dave

    This is fascinating to me, has your dissertation been published in any way, or is it available online anywhere? Thanks for a great article!

  • Bob Scott

    The impact of jointure is the same. It’s the difference between the white house and the White House in terms of emphasis and resulting meaning. Or between nice, but… and nice butt.

    One thing most English-speaking Americans have problem with is understanding that differences in pitch have meaning so that’s clearly something that’s much easier to learn as a child than as an adult. I remember listening to a Turkish exercise and calling a friend saying, “It sounds like the speaker is doing almost an octave jump” on a particular word and he responded, “That’s authentic Istanbul Turkish.”

    Actually the whole point is we don’t learn these things in school. Nor does school teaches us how nouns and verbs (any other part of language works). We learn those things before getting to school and school helps us regularize these things to provide consistent communication. Schools are more a factor is preventing more rapid mutation of languages into dialects and other languages than they are in teaching us how language works.

    One of the good things about Rosetta Stone is exactly this–that it doesn’t matter what a part of speech is in learning to speak. It is useful to learn this stuff after gaining a certain amount of language mastery.

  • Emily Nava

    Hi Dave,
    Thank you for your interest. Here’s the reference for my dissertation:
    Nava, E. (2010). Connecting Phrasal and Rhythmic Events: Evidence from Second Language Speech. PhD Dissertation. University of Southern California.

    Thanks again,

  • Carolyn Gentry

    As a novice I appreciate your clear explaination of “prosody”. Thank you! Hopefully this will become a part of our education process

  • Language Learning with Rosetta Stone

    […] my opinion, what is most remarkable is that the twins have acquired certain aspects of prosody and paralinguistic properties (gestures, facial expressions, and the like) without actually having […]

  • Candace Rapking

    As an speech language pathologist, I agree wholeheartedly that this linguistic aspect is very ignored when learning a second language. In fact, many high school students ignore the nuances of language that are very important in gaining attention, making your point, or showing that you agree with others.

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