Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Speech is Silver, Singing is Gold

In my previous (and first) post, I pointed out how a Scottish singer's heavy accent changes radically while singing. My intention was to find out if this accent change was a conscious choice or if it was really difficult to sing with a strong accent. In that post, I also included a study supporting the idea that you can actually sing your accent away. Related to these findings, I also asked whether this would have implications in the classroom when teaching pronunciation, keeping in mind that it might be easier to adopt a more "standard" accent when singing. In the comments, Matt Ledding wrote that he uses a three step process when teaching pronunciation.

The pattern that Matt normally uses is:
  1. singing the rhythm and intonation without the sounds
  2. singing just the vowels
  3. singing the sentence
About this procedure he says:
"Doing that makes it easier to focus on the sounds and I generally perceive a noticeable difference, especially with fossilized sounds, with many students."
 As a result, he wanted "to test his own pattern of practicing pronunciation from an absolute beginner autonomous learner point of view". He took one Turkish sentence from a dialogue and the outcome was this:

I have to say that I admire Matt's patience. He tried a lot and says that he spent 20 minutes repeating "(mis) perceived Turkish sounds" and consequently fossilizing errors.  I can say that there is some kind of a progress through the process, however, all native speakers of Turkish would agree that the outcome is not intelligible (when listened to as an isolated sentence).

So, since my take on the issue was that singing would make it easier to learn the pronunciation of words, I suggested he try a Turkish song to see if this time his pronunciation would improve and become more intelligible. I suggested a song by a famous Turkish pop band called MFÖ. The title of the song is 'Benim Hala Umudum Var", which means "I Still Got Hope". This is what happened:

What happened this time is really surprising. The outcome is something like a miracle for someone who is a complete beginner in Turkish. All words are pronounced correctly, with a little touch of a "foreign accent", but are totally intelligible to a native Turkish speaker. Matt says that he listened to it, paused to write down what he heard (why did he hear differently this time?) and recorded it once (only once!). Even when he speaks the lyrics as a sentence, they are clearly understood by a native Turkish speaker. 

What can we conclude from this experiment? Will the results be the same with other languages and other people? Is there anyone out there who would like to try? It doesn't have to be a Turkish song. You can try with other languages as well but I need volunteers who can recommend short bits of speech in a language and then songs in the same language so that we can compare the results and maybe rate their pronunciation as well.

Turkish native speakers out there, how would you rate Matt's two performances?


  1. This is a great piece of original research :-) I'd love to know if second time round, Matt can actually remember anything (any of the words)

    1. Thank you Elizabeth. I actually believe that he will not forget some of the lyrics for a very long time and I will put this to the test the next time I see Matt.

  2. As a Turkish native speaker,İ can honestly say that Matt can sing that MFO song much better than me! İ love the idea and would like to see what my students can do about it.

  3. Hi Hakan,

    Amazing post!! Very inspiring and enlightening.. Thanks for sharing it with us..

    I've been wondering about this issue myself for a long time, actually. Last february, I was in Istanbul with a friend (male & Italian & middle-aged). He knows just a few basic expressions in Turkish (like "merhaba", "günaydın", "çok yaşa") and that's it. When he reads or utters something in Turkish, I can hardly understand him. One morning, we had our breakfast in the hotel and went out for a walk in Taksim. while we were walking down to Eminönü, I heard him singing in Turkish. Unconsciously but with a perfect pronunciation! Probably, he heard the song (Teşekkürler-Hande Yener) while we were having breakfast and magically he memorized the song. I have no idea how he did it. And apparently neither does he! Since then, when I can't understand him, I say "Cantami!" (sing to me!)and your research kind of supports my claim :) Funny but true story :)

    It also reminded me of my two Italian friends (female / middle-aged) who sang in English perfectly although they didn't speak a word of English. If I can find a video, I'll let you know. When they sing, they are native-like but when they try to speak, it's impossible to understand what they're saying.

    1. Hello Özgen,
      Thank you very much for sharing your observations with us. Wouldn't it be great if all pronunciation activities consisted of singing. As far as I can see, experiences show that it really makes a difference.

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