Saturday, November 1, 2014
Why You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language. Part 10
Articulation and the Speech Apparatus, or You Are Dancing the Fandango
It is well known that the sounds of human speech are formed through the modification of the airflow from our lungs by our speech apparatus. The speech apparatus includes the mouth and nasal cavities along with all its parts: the voice ligaments, tongue, teeth, palate, etc. The air flow is changed primarily by the work of the voice ligaments, larynx, tongue and cheeks.
The speech apparatus is considered identical for everyone, just like hands, feet or, let’s say, hearts. In any case, that’s how it is immediately after birth and the first years of life. But for any given language, the functioning of these speech organs is different from other languages. The differences lie in what groups of muscles of the speech apparatus are functioning and in what sequence—that is, in the algorithms of the working of the speech apparatus. Various languages have their own algorithms for how the speech apparatus works. The speech apparatus of a native speaker of a particular language forms sounds and combinations of sounds that are characteristic to that language but to greater or lesser degrees alien to other languages.
We can draw a parallel here with dancing and say something like this: in one language, the speech apparatus exclusively dances the waltz; in another, nothing but the tango; in a third, the foxtrot and nothing but the foxtrot; and in a fourth, the Cossack dance. Here’s a more masculine example: in one language, the speech apparatus only boxes; in another it only knows kung-fu or some other discipline, such as sumo wrestling; it is satisfied and made proud by sumo and desires nothing besides sumo.
Practically the whole sound structure of a foreign language is often based on sounds that are completely absent in our native language. The matter is complicated even more by the fact that, in the beginning, it’s impossible even to distinguish these completely alien (to us) sounds, let alone to try to pronounce them correctly. There is simply no program in our brain that is assigned to recognise the alien sounds of a foreign language. These sound elements are unusual to our native language, and the hearing apparatus needs training for the corresponding program to develop in our brain and begin working effectively in identifying these sounds.
But let us return to our speech apparatus. In the process of speech, some muscles bear most of the workload, and accordingly, they are trained and constantly in shape. Other muscles function to a significantly lesser degree or do not function at all and accordingly are in a condition of partial or complete atrophy.
In some measure, this can be compared to the way that the Chinese aristocracy would bind girls’ feet from infancy. This was actually practiced to give their gait a certain elegance. As a result of this drawn-out process of many years the poor aristocrats were unable to walk in a normal way but ‘graciously’ hobbled, not unlike ducks suffering from gout. The atrophy of the corresponding foot muscles left them with nothing else. It could be said for all of us that our articulation apparatus has been ‘bound’, ‘twisted’ by our environment just like Chinese aristocratic feet. In different languages and cultures, this transpires in different ways and correspondingly generates various language ‘gaits’.
When you attempt to form sounds in your new language, mastering, as it were, a new language gait, the poorly trained or atrophied muscles of the articulation apparatus suddenly have to begin working, though they are completely unaccustomed to it and protest against the process. By the way, this behaviour is not simply our muscles being capricious. They really do not know how to make the demanded algorithms of movement. Imagine their surprise and indignation when we try to force them to do this impossible thing! How would you feel if all of a sudden you were ordered to dance, let’s say the fandango? Right here and now! What would your fandango look like? Personally, I wouldn’t like to picture this ugly debacle in my mind, with all due respect to you…
Keep in mind that, during the articulation of the many, many sounds of a foreign language, the primary load falls directly on the unprepared muscles, the ‘loafers’. A battle begins between your will… your… uh... iron will?... and your insubordinate and self-willed articulation apparatus, accustomed exclusively to, let’s say, Polish folk dance and in no way desirous to cross over to a minuet. Or vice versa if you prefer.
Who will come out the victor in this battle? Each will answer this question for himself, but your success will depend highly on the correctness of your chosen tactic for this battle with this ‘dangerous enemy’. Will you hobble in your new language like the aforementioned ill duck? Or will you walk with a firm and from time to time elegant stride? Unless you have no innate functional flaws in your articulation apparatus or any serious traumatic alterations, the tactic you choose (correctly or incorrectly) in developing the new articulation ‘gait’ will give you the answers to these questions.
[Via Language Tai-chi, or You Cannot Be Taught a Foreign Language, by Nikolay Zamyatkin]