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LINGUIST List 21.2075

Mon May 03 2010

FYI: Setting Language Acquisition Research to Music

Editor for this issue: Danielle St. Jean <daniellelinguistlist.org>

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        1.    John Stephenson, Setting Language Acquisition Research to Music

Message 1: Setting Language Acquisition Research to Music
Date: 29-Apr-2010
From: John Stephenson <jstephhuman.mie-u.ac.jp>
Subject: Setting Language Acquisition Research to Music
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While language learning may be of interest to the general public,
acquisition research rarely makes forays into wider culture, partly due
to the apparent difficulty of reconciling the needs of an audience
seeking an entertaining and informative experience with the rigorous
procedures of linguistic science. In the English city of Newcastle upon
Tyne, however, groups including linguists, musicians and talented
school children have set out to change public perceptions through
setting language acquisition research to music.

Insights into first language acquisition lend themselves to musical
performance, as far as Martha Young-Scholten (project management)
and Andy Jackson (composer) are concerned. With the help of
Newcastle schoolchildren and University of Newcastle linguistics
students, music is used to illustrate various stages of coming to
language, starting in the womb. In the first piece on the group’s CD,
'Swing Cycle,' Jackson brings forth phonological acquisition in musical

The early stages of 'Swing Cycle' present the emergence of
phonological distinctions from background noise. First to reach the
ears are the vowels, presented in various ways, even distorted, to put
across the experience of initial linguistic processing. 'Birth' presents a
"consonant explosion" starting, of course, with the plosives. [b], [d], [k]
and so on are uttered, with the earliest-acquired sounds repeated.
Clusters of consonants soon emerge, including those which will
ultimately fall by the wayside, sequences such as [rm] not being part of

As the piece goes on, the listener is reminded less of the cacophony
which must be the infant’s initial experience of language, in favour of
the appearance of syllables and word-like units. At this stage,
messages themselves are indistinct, reflected in the incomprehensible
lyrics. The listener hears such sequences as, "Ah, moo chitty ferry vine
fact or thrive. Fizzy bee. Rice inn," with a glance at the accompanying
CD guide revealing that this is a disguised form of the final song. For
now, intonation and rhythm dominate, with finer details yet to come.

The listener is next treated to various stages that represent more
complex language acquisition. Inappropriate stress and word boundary
confusion are exemplified in various intriguing ways: lyrics such as,
"Carmpad ling pool paw" and "Bam burble murple chop" mark some of
the boundary changes (answers revealed in the final stage).

Young-Scholten et al. recognise, of course, that speech is merely the
modality that children make use of if local conditions demand it. Others
find themselves signing as well as or instead of speaking. The second
piece, 'Out of the Mouths,' reminds the listener in its first section that
the languages of the Deaf are also underlain by similar processes of
language acquisition. In fact, most of the stages here apply equally to
signers as speakers: cooing, babbling, touching, pointing and thinking
are all represented. Only in the 'Singing' and 'Talking' stages does
speech take centre stage.

Newcastle has brought language acquisition research into a new light
with this activity, but music appreciation that is fun also has an
educational role. Language students in Japan, for example, have
experienced the music for themselves in order to learn about language
acquisition and English, with the help of a former Newcastle student
involved with the project. Kaori Ando’s students at the Kanda Institute
of Foreign Languages in Tokyo enjoyed the music and were able to
find out new things about language acquisition, such as the gradual
nature of L1 development, without the need to draw this understanding
from dense text or somewhat drier material. The may have helped them
to develop realistic goals and performance expectations.

The two pieces of music were performed at the Sage Gateshead, one
of Tyneside’s major music venues, in July 2008. MP3 files and lyrics
are available for download at the Newcastle University website:



John Stephenson
Faculty of Humanities, Law and Economics
Mie University

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition; Phonetics; Phonology; Psycholinguistics

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