Learning the ‘rhythm’ of a language helps language learners become fluent

As Wales faces a decline in the number of Welsh speakers, it’s even more important that Welsh learners make the transition from second language learners to become fluent Welsh speakers.

One identified obstacle to ‘fluency’ is Welsh learner’s difficulty in replicating the sound of Welsh- not only the ‘ll’ ‘ch’ and other sounds unfamiliar to the English ear, but also the stress and rhythm of the language, which is different to that of English, and other languages.

There are many subtle differences in the stresses and rhythms of different languages which native speakers and bilinguals replicate without realising. Replicating these rhythms can be really difficult for language learners and can prove a real barrier to successful second language learning, and make it more difficult for learners to be understood by native speakers.

Welsh speakers may be aware that the stress in most Welsh words lies in the last but one syllable- and learners may be told this, but what Welsh speakers may not realise is that the way the language creates that stress is totally different to the way the English language places emphasis on a syllable. This makes it more difficult for Welsh learners to identify and replicate the rhythm they’re supposed to be matching when they speak Welsh.

In English, the emphasis is mainly created through pitch, volume and length of a vowel. In Welsh, the stress is created by lengthening the consonant following the stressed syllable.

Using this one example as a model, an expert at Bangor University is researching whether the difficulty is an auditory one of actually tuning in and hearing where the stress is in a word, a mechanical one- in simply recreating the sound and rhythm of a language or a difficulty in correctly remembering those sounds?

The findings from the British Academy-funded research by Ineke Mennen, Professor of Linguistics at Bangor University will add to understanding how adults learn a second language and where the difficulties may lie.

Of course, from knowing where the problem lies, comes creating the solution.

Prof Mennen of the School of Linguistics and English Language explains:

“It may be that we find that the problem is in storing the particular sound in memory- so that we, or others, will be able to develop multi-media teaching resources that could be used to assist learners in recognising particular language rhythms and stresses, and be able to practise replicating them.”

Ifor Gruffydd, Director of the North Wales Welsh for Adults Centre at Bangor University, which provides Welsh for Adults classes across north Wales commented:

“We fully recognise the importance of ensuring that Welsh for Adults courses incorporate the latest language acquisition research, not only in meeting the needs of modern day learners, but also in ensuring that teaching methods and the course content are as effective as they can possibly be.  We are fortunate at the Welsh for Adults Centre, as part of the University, that we are continuously able to work with academic researchers and benefit from pioneering and ground breaking research and incorporate it in our courses.  This latest research offers us exciting opportunities for the future, particularly in the development of new electronic resources for learners.”

Explanation  to accompany sound file video clip

  The firts example is a native English speaker saying the word ‘cannon’. You will hear very clearly that the stress is on the first syllable (ca-non). The pitch is clearly higher on the first syllable, the vowel is longer, and it is louder than the second syllable.

In the second example you will hear the word ‘canol’ (middle). The sounds in this word are very similar to the sounds in the English word ‘canon’ we heard before. The stress here is also on the first syllable (as Welsh almost always has stress in the last but one syllable). But what we hear is very different from English. Pitch is as high or slightly higher on the second syllable. The vowel of the unstressed second syllable is just as long as that on the first (stressed) syllable. And the syllables are equally loud.

This clearly illustrates that the way Welsh indicates emphasis (stress) on a syllable in a word is very different to the way this is done in English.

This must be a difficult thing for English native speakers to acquire when they are learning Welsh as a second language. Even when they are told that stress is almost always on the last but one syllable, they are usually not told that the way the Welsh indicate stress is also different. In order to help them, we will use sound files where we exaggerate these differences in order to help them hear this, and ultimately to help them do it in a native-like way.

In the following  example, we have artificially shortened the /s/ in the word ‘mesen’ (acorn). The listener is asked to compare this with another sound file (called mesen_long s) which has the original length of the sounds as produced by native Welsh speakers. In this case, the Welsh speaker is from Carmarthenshire.

Publication date: 2 December 2014