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:

1. Sigmund thought they knew about his parents.

2. Sigmund thought, they knew, about his parents.

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.

Emily Nava

Emily Nava is an Assistant Researcher/Linguist in Rosetta Stone's Labs department. She has a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Southern California. Her dissertation focused on the acquisition of prosody by native speakers of Spanish learning English as a second language.
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