Thursday, October 31, 2013

Connected Speech

To teach is to learn. And to be a good teacher you must learn to be a good learner. And that's what again was the rod that struck me again today in my life as an English teacher in China. In fact the lesson could only really happen today when I had several instances of connected speech arise in my work and then the same phenomenon knocked me around a little in my casual study of the Cantonese dialect.
What is connected speech? It's the natural changes that occur to pronunciation of words when in a natural speech. You see, every word has a proper way of saying the word individually, for example "can". When you say it by itself it has a sharp vowel. But put it in a sentence and it degrades: "Can I help you?" for most speakers becomes "k'nai HELL pyoo". The once proud "can" no longer being the centre of attention breaks down to mere consonants. "Can" is most often pronounced in its weak form. Of course, in that rather mundane example there are even more  of connected speech. There is also concatenation which is simply when the sound from the end of one word is pronounced with the sounds of the next. In the example, "nai" and "pyoo" are more attached to the following word than the word we attach it to. In a wander in the computer lab a student asked me about another phemonenon, intrusion. She got me to say "You and me" naturally. Try it. To the untrained ear, you might think you are just saying those three words, but closer inspection leads you to notice that you're in fact saying: "YOO wum MEE". The "w" is an intruding sound. Incidentally this example also has elision with the "d" being hacked off "and" and another effect compounding it, assimilation, where the stump "n" in "and" is influenced by the "me" and becomes an "M". As a result, by the end of the spontaneous transformations, a student will wonder how such an easy word like "and" which they say correctly by itself, could mutate into "wum". Fortunately my student was quite accepting of the interloping "w" and just wanted me to say it naturally.

As a teacher, it took me a long time to realise that though we teach connected speech as something students can say, the first step in learning it is awareness. You need to notice it, or be told it exists and then notice it before you can learn it.Then you can notice the common patterns so when you hear an utterance that somehow has become unintelligible, you have a few cues to help decode it. Even if students can't say it, and believe me they struggle to unlearn the "proper" forms of words when they speak, they do need to be able to listen and recognise it.

But there I was yabbering about something I k'n confidently deal with, my forte, English. When you're the teacher and master of your language you can smugly say how it is with a smile and if there is resistance, you k'n just say that that is what English is and that it has to be accepted. But after I knock off work, I remove my English right shoe and put on my Cantonese left shoe and suddenly begin yabbering in a less consistent, less assured way. In earlier blogs, I've mentioned that Qingyuan Cantonese has routine connected speech with particular words. I'd adjusted to this because they were particular high frequency words. They were set contractions just like English has "won't" "aren't/ain't" "can't" etc.

I knew that there were some mild features in Guangzhou Cantonese too, but not to the same creation of set contractions. Now, watching a HK crime drama I've scratched deeper by noticing the more garden variety connected speech which is more subtle, quick and insidious. And so the left foot has started kicking. The contractions I've only just gaining an ear for a quick. The Cantonese word for but is "daan6 hai6" (numbers denote tone) only now have I realised in the TV shows that it's mostly said as "Daa'ai6" unless said deliberately. Another 3-4 changes I noticed in about 20 minutes of watching all because my mind was switched on to inconsistencies and unintelligible sequences that the mandarin subtitles hinted as being intelligible phrases.

There are inherent difficulties in understanding connected speech: the phenomenon happens more with faster speech. That means that fast speech is not just more difficult because of the pace but comprehension is also obscured by these transformations of sound. And couple that with the tendencies of speakers to go from fast to slower in a turn at speaking (often this happens in language where the key information is later in the sentence so the first part which frames it is hastily rushed through). That means for a learner watching a TV series, when another person starts speaking they'll throw high speed sentence starters before saying their key information. That helps for understanding gist if you ignore the first few words they say, but often the initial burst hits me like a drawer of flying knives, causing me to duck the rush of meaning that quickly ceases by the time I get the composure to listen onward.

Learning language you don't just need patience but a degree of foolhardiness to stand strong in the rush of meaning and take it in. 

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