Something behaves so strangely…

Being a native speaker of a non-tonal language, it’s sometimes really difficult for me to get my head around the importance of tones in Chinese, and other tonal languages.  I find it difficult to pick up the nuances sometimes. But it’s not like we don’t use tone in English, though, and it must be somewhat difficult for a non-native speaker to get the hang of the fluctuating tones in questions and exclamations as well.

Some accents (e.g. from certain areas of Ireland) sound very ‘sing-song’, as every accent may to speakers of different languages.   Do Irish people sound sing-song to themselves?  I’ll try to remember to ask next time.

An American psychologist has recently confirmed an odd phenomenon that occurs when a spoken phrase is repeated (exactly) over and over – it registers in our brains as a song.  Diana Deutsch discovered this in the mid ’90s when she was repeatedly listening to a recording of her own voice.  A certain segment of the recording — ‘something behaves so strangely’ — started to sound like a melody after hearing it several times.

She tested this theory by asking singers to repeat what they heard.  When exposed to the phrase once, the subjects spoke it back.  When they heard it several times, they sang it back.  Listen to the recording here, and see if it gets stuck in your head like it did in mine.

It seems that our brains suppress the musical cues in everyday speech, probably so we can more easiily pick out the meaning of words.  Once we know what the phrase is, though, it seems that we unconsciously become more receptive to the changes in pitch and rhythm.   Maybe this is why we hear more of a sing-song quality in languages that we don’t understand, as we know we won’t be able to find meaning from them just by listening.

Incidentally, Diana Deutsch’s voice sounds a lot like the narrator from a children’s story LP that I had when I was younger.  Maybe she already had a sing-song voice to start with.

Full article from New Scientist.

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