Sunday 27 July 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Aria)

- ‘Había una vez dos hermanitos: Juanito y Pedrito’. (Once upon a time there two brothers: Little Johnny and Little Peter), Daughter said.
- No, no, nena, the intonation is: HaBÍa una VEZ dos hermaNItos: JuaNIto y PeDRIto. (Once upon a Time, there were two BROthers: LIttle Johnny and LIttle Peter)

And so Daughter repeated the sentence accordingly with a clear and accentuated pitch.

One of the most overlooked aspects of teaching and learning a foreign language is the different intonation patterns people have. Please, note that I am referring to intonation, the melody of pitch changes in connected speech, namely, what distinguishes speakers from dissimilar linguistic cultures. Not stress, which is the emphasis in the form of prominent relative loudness of a syllable or word as a result of special effort in utterance (that will be the subject of a future column). Intonation and stress are sometimes mixed up, hence my explanation.

Both Son and Daughter have British accents and therefore their intonation owes a lot to that nasal twang so characteristic of north Londoners. Coupled with this is the influence of US and Australian cultures and the patterns that govern their speech and at times both Son and Daughter's voices reach that rising inflection so typical of the aforementioned countries (especially northeast United States where people seem to be asking questions the whole time when they are actually making statements). It has been a lovely battle to wage, though, teaching them the correct intonation patterns of Cuban Spanish, since when I explain this to them they pay attention closely.

Last year when we were all in Cuba, Son adopted a distinctive, melodic speech rhythm. Because he played and talked a lot with his Cuban cousin who is the same age he is (only a couple of weeks younger) he came back to the UK with a twang that resembled the Havana accent but with a ‘cantaito’ (singsong intonation) leaning heavily towards eastern Cuba, the so-called ‘Oriental’ patois. I teased him a bit about it, but not in a negative or derogatory way, just to show him the various forms in which people speak Spanish in the Ibero-Latin Diaspora.

For instance, Andalusians and Canarians have a closer accent to Cubans than the rest of Spain. Cubans, on the other hand, share a more similar speech pattern with Dominicans (as in Dominican Republic), Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans and Colombians. Travel southwards and you will find Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Bolivians gravitating towards a similar standard of oral melodies. Argentinians, Uruguayans and Paraguayans, no matter what they say, have the Italian influence to thank for their musical speech. The only country that does not factor into this equal distribution communication standards is the Chilean speech pattern. The first time I heard a Chilean person speaking I was bamboozled. Their intonation, in my humble opinion, resembles more the northeast US and Australian accents already mentioned in this column than the more usual Spanish accents I come across and it’s a beautiful example of how misleading Spanish can be to the untrained ear (I must remark at this point that I am a sucker for accents and for me not one comes above another, whether I am speaking in English, Spanish, German or French). It’s a similar case in Central America with Mexico the nation standing out amongst countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras where the variation of tone shares more commonalities.

With Daughter and the story of ‘El Osito Boribón’ (Little Bear Boribón) it was not just a question of intonation but also of narration. Further down the page we were on, she read:

- Tenían una suiza… y la rompieron, les regalaron un trencito… y también lo rompieron, les regalaron una pelota… y la reventaron (they had a skipping rope… and they broke it, they were given a train set… and they also broke it, they were given a ball… and they burst it)
- No, no, nena. Try to give the audience a sense of anticipation so that they are left craving for more and desperate to know what the ending is, like this: they had a SKIPPING ROPE… and they BROKE it, they were given a TRAIN SET… and they ALSO broke it, they were given a BALL… and they BURST it.

You see, it is not just the intonation, but also the acting that goes with it.

Copyright 2008


  1. Hola hermano! Ojala pases una buena semana. No trabajes mucho!

  2. I'm always so impressed when one can speak another language, fluently or not. I seem to have a hard time remembering English words...the thought of a completely different language is simply overwhelming.

    Have fun camping in Dorset. Will you be in a caravan or a tent? We leave in 27 days (not that I'm counting) for our coast trailer (caravan) for this princess.

  3. I have always been fascinated by various accents within a certain language. Interesting post. I speak with a very typically midwestern accent, a tad on the northern, Cleveland-ish side.

    Yes, acting has a lot to do with it!

  4. For some people like me, there is no way we would grab the right intonation. We put all our reserves in trying to organize the words in a row and let alone the music. I am not defending it. It is just a fact. I declare myself unable to imitate it. I speak Cuban English: The strong Ts and Rs... and I am glad when people understand me. But I understand your point because I hear the differences when others speak.
    Al Godar

  5. En Aleman le llaman Sprachmelodie...
    I'm a sucker for accents too. For languages, in general.
    Incluso por aquellos otros a menudo no percibido como lenguajes: la musica, el codigo de programacion, planos de ingeniera, matematicas...
    Formas de comunicacion, todas!

  6. Thanks everyone for stopping by. Diva, We will be part of a group, but we're also looking into the possibility of purchasing a caravan for longer journeys on our own, maybe hitting continental Europe some day.

    Willow, that's a harder accent for me to discern, I am more used to the northeastern accent (most of my post-graduate tutors came from that area) or the Southern drawl because I worked with a few people from the Deep South.

    Al, I totally sympathise with you my friend. I can;t recall the number of hours i agonised over my phonetics and phonology assignments in Uni. Boy, were they hard!

    Alnitak, Sprachmelodie. Ja, genau!Tienes mucha razon en que las formas de comunicacion son tan numerosas que uno se olvida que hasta la informatica tiene su propio lexico.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  7. Interesting post. I love to be suprised when people open mouths and u don't expect them to sound that particular way. It reinforces the fact that we are not born this way or that way. We are very much a product of our environment.

  8. I've never been trained in spotting or placing accents, but frequent travels and working in intercultural settings have made me grow fond of them. At the very least, I listen more closely now and my ears prick up to distinguish. Yes, even to the recording on the tram. :-)

    Thank you for stopping by my home on the Internets! It's great to visit yours.

  9. Hola Cuban, a mi nena le pasa algo parecido, tiene un acento castizo definido, sin embargo cuando pasa dos semanas en la Habana comienza a suavizar las zetas, a rendondear la erres (pojque)...y gradualmente re-adopta el idioma de Los Sitios, so un barnicito:-)) un abrazo



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