In my last post – “Words are Imaginary, Syllables are Real – Learn Syllables!”, I explained how words have no physical reality to them and are actually mental abstractions. This is problematic for anyone approaching foreign language exclusively through words, since oral communication is fundamentally a physical activity.
As an alternative, I presented a more “physical” approach to language-learning – the syllables approach. In contrast to words, syllables can be transcribed in a way that accurately represents the acoustic reality of speech. This is extremely useful, since all human speech can be broken down into strings of rhythmic syllables.
At first, most people will struggle to hear speech in syllables, since literacy training has caused us to hear speech in terms of imagined words. Nevertheless, Syllables Perception CAN be trained.
I’ve trained syllable perception extensively through both my rap-training in multiple languages and my Cloud-Tutoring of hundreds of other people’s accents (currently I have over 40,000 Soundcloud comments).
Training this ability has dramatically improved my ability to mimic and learn any human language. As I will write about soon, one of my goals for 2013 is to develop a free and open curriculum for “Flow-Training,’ and syllable perception will be a core competency of this program.
In this post, I will discuss in detail the most important element of syllable perception – rhythm perception.
The Importance of “Sub-Division”
My idea for The Mimic Method Language-Learning philosophy was conceived during my musical experiences in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I was studying percussion intensely for the first time and was having several epiphanies regarding the fundamental role that rhythm played in music.
The main epiphany I had was in regards to a concept called “sub-division.” Sub-division is when you count a musical meter in it’s smallest units. For example, instead doing a normal beat count of:
I grew up playing classical violin, and my teachers and orchestra conductors would often encourage me and my peers to sub-divide in our heads, but most of us would just count the beat (e.g 1…2…3…4). In comparison to other genres, classical music has little rhythmic complexity, so the normal beat-count got the job done most of the time.
In afro-brazilian percussive styles, however, the musical aesthetic lies precisely within its rhythmic complexity. Moreover, these rhythm patterns are completely different from the ones that dominate all the American musical traditions, which means I had to train new mental processes for hearing music (more on this in a later post).
The result is that I had a very difficult time learning to play these rhythms on the instruments I was studying at the time (repinique, pandeiro and cavaquinho). I always found myself “funk-ifying” the beats, i.e. manipulating the brazilian rhythms to fit the funk, soul and hip hop rhythms I was entrained in.
Sub-division was my solution to this challenge. No matter how complex or syncopated a beat is, I realized that any given “hit” will always occur either on the beat (1, 2, 3 or 4) or on one of the sub-beats in between the beats (ignoring tuplets for now).
Therefore to learn a new beat, I just had to figure out what those sub-beats were and practice them in subdivision.
If you were raised in North America or Europe where syncopated rhythms are not commonly heard in daily life, there’s a good chance you’ll have a hard time clapping along to this rhythm. In the western musical traditions, people are used to clapping or syncing up just with the “down beats” (1….2….3….4).
In African, Afro-Latino, and Afro-Caribbean cultures, however, there’s a lot more syncopation (NOT on the down beat) in all the musical genres, so people are used to this stuff (i.e. they got the Flow down). Here’s a scene I recently recorded of a samba da mesa performance. When the singer yells “palma da mão!” (palm of the hand=clap your hands) at the end of the video, everyone starts to clap the syncopated rhythm from above.
The beats in parentheses are “ghost notes” that you hear in your head but not making with your voice, or hands, or whatever things is bringing these sounds to physical reality.
This “palma da mão” rhythm would be transcribed as follows:
The most important thing to note here is that even when I am not clapping or counting the ghost notes out loud, I am ALWAYS hearing them in my head.
This is what all percussionists and most professional musicians do. Even if I’m not thinking of the numbers or “i,e,a’s” in my head, I am always feeling that constant subdivision pulse whenever I do anything musical.
This is because in music, the silences are just as important as the sounds.
This is the general epiphany I had while trying to teach myself these new Brazilian instruments and rhyhtms. It wasn’t long after I had this epiphany about music that I had the same one about language.
Rhythm in Language
Before I get into that, I’d like to give you a short introduction to speech rhythm, or prosody as it’s called in Phonetics. As I stated before, speech is merely a string of rhythmic syllables. A syllable is made up of either a consonant, vowel, or combination of the two.
Remember, the underlined and emboldended syllables are the “Stressed” syllables. In speech, there are actually many levels of stress (or prominence as it’s called in phonetics), but the most basic heirarchy is “stressed” and “unstressed”, and that’s what we focus on in Flow-training.
Our brains rely on this alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables to process speech.
Speech can occur at a rate of 50 phonemes per second and still be comprehensible. The only way this is possible is because of Flow, and this rhythmic alternation between stressed and unstressed is the basis of Flow.
The Ghost Notes of Speech
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that ghost notes occur whenever a consonant sound is dropped. Apply a deeper phonetic knowledge and you’ll realize that all these consonants are “plosive stops”, which is when you build up air behind an articulator and and release it in a burst.The stops are some of the most energy-intensive sounds in human speech, so it makes sense why we drop these sound in so many accents of English. But we can’t just drop them without a paying some sort of phonetic homage to them, which is why we replace them with syllables and hear the “ghost notes” in our head without thinking about it.
Foreigners have a rough time understanding English because they take a words approach and expect to hear all the sounds suggested from the written word. This is a perfect example why we can never rely on writing to learn a new language – sounds from written words get dropped and altered all the time, so there nowhere near as reliable as syllables.
Languages will always evolve beyond their writing systems, so you’re much better off learning skills that are more adaptive than literacy. What if instead of spending your time memorizing writing rules, you spent your time learning to hear stresses and silences?
Training Yourself to Hear Speech Rhythm
Remember, it can be very difficult to free your thinking processes from the bondage of written word. Everything you hear in your native language, or any other foreign language you studied extensively, will be tainted by your knowledge of the word and writing.
That’s why the best way to train yourself to hear stresses and silences is to practice with speech you are not familiar with at all. In previous posts, I wrote about how you can study speech in detail using the “reduced tempo” and “repeat’ effects on Audacity (Review my posts on “Flow-verlapping” and my post on Using Audacity to Learn Song Lyrics here).
Get Started with Speech Rhythm Training Today
Instead of looking up text transcriptions or song lyrics, focus on training your ear sensitivity. It’s always best to use music because the speech rhythm is more obvious due to it’s alignment with the musical beat.
Take some random song on the internet, preferably one you like and in a language you are not familiar with, then use my audacity tricks to break it down. Experiment and see if you can figure out where the stresses and silences are.
I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t get it 100% accurate on your first try. It took me quite a while to develop this ability, and I only did so because people were paying me to do it in the development of my Flow Series courses.
I can tell you, however, that I am very glad I did develop this ability, because now my universal mimicry ability in both language and music is better than anyone else I’ve ever met. I can pick up, memorize and attach meaning to phrases many times faster than I could before developing The Flow Series, which means I can learn new languages many times faster now.
As I wrote before, one of my goals this year is to start developing a curriculum for general Flow-Training so you guys can follow the same path and accelerate your core music/language learning competencies.
More on that to come. In the meantime, keep on flowin!