Sound wave: Owa Tana Siam

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This brilliant sketch by the late Ronnie Barker is an eye-opener – or an ear-opener! – to how we preempt meaning when we listen. I found it on Abiloon’s lovely blog – full transcript there.

I would use this video to raise student awareness for the way we anticipate what the speaker will say next.

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker summarizes speech research showing that we can recognize and recollect nonsensical word streams better if they follow known syntax, and adds:

“If one thinks of the sound wave as sitting at the bottom of a hierarchy from sounds to phonemes to words and phrases to the meanings of sentences to general knowledge, these demonstrations seem to imply that human speech perception works from the top down rather than just the bottom up. Maybe we are constantly guessing what a speaker will say next, using every scrap of conscious and unconscious knowledge at our disposal, from how coarticulation distorts sounds, to the rules of English phonology, to stereotypes about who tends to do what to whom in the world, to hunches about what our conversational partner has in mind at that very moment. If the expectations are accurate enough, the accoustic analysis can be fairly crude; what the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” (p. 181)

The more accurate our expectations are regarding what we will hear, the more generous we can be in analyzing/ adding what is missing in the sound wave. Conversely, the less accurate the listener’s knowledge of English syntax and discourse, the less generous he or she can be with mispronounced words. Filling in the gaps in what we hear based on prediction requires fast thinking. Small wonder that speakers of ELF, as they tune into each other, tend to be happy to drop connected speech.

Science, at least within the field and among peers, is high context, little needs to be explained. College students who share a field anticipate specialized vocabulary and are ready and able to correctly interpret quite a variety of pronunciations of such terms. “What the sound wave lacks, the context can fill in.” This contributes to the surprizing range in mutually intelligible pronunciation that I have been encountering.

If I were to use this video, we could also use the song at the end for a Mondegreen-style misheard or rather misspelled lyrics activity, for connected speech awareness. It’s  introduced from 3:20: “And now, in confusion, I would like you to join me in singing the Siamese notional anthem to the tune of God Save the Queer: O’wa ta’na Si’am.” One would need to explain “twit” and “nit”. Hmm… I’m not sure how valuable this would be, especially since the other part is so thought-provoking. Will just have to try it out.


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