Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sound sorting tones

Two posts today. First, early on, we encountered two words: broom and window. Both sounded like baarii. However, we discovered they were different and the difference was categorical for the nurturer (which always seems dramatic when they hear something so strikingly different, and you don't hear any difference). Angela and I could not possibly hear any distinction. This is what Núria Sebastián-Gallés calls "deafness" in cross-language speech perception. (Sebastián-Gallés, Núria. (2004). Cross-Language Speech Perception. In Pisoni, David B. & Remez, Robert E. The Handbook of Speech Perception, pp. 531-546. Oxford: Blackwell.) To host people, the difference is so obvious and they can't fathom anyone not hearing it. They can't get in your shoes and hear through your ears. But truly, to you the two things sound identical. (A Latina woman told me once that she always says "bed linens" rather than "sheets" since she can hear no difference between "sheet" and another English word.

When we found ourselves deaf to a sound distinction, I at once concluded the difference must be tone, because all the other possibilities involved sound distinctions I know I'm not "deaf" to, and I'd already heard that a related language was tonal.

We'd been doing sound sorting with first-syllable vowels, but that was pretty easy. In Phase 1, we have small drawings for each earlier vocabulary item, and use them for different purposes, including sound sorting. If you've forgotten what sound sorting is, in the case of initial vowels, it means listening to the words again that go with the drawings, and as you do, arranging the drawings in columns of words that all begin with the same vowel. It was definitely helping us to hear the vowels better, but there were no distinctions we could not here.

When we discovered there were tones, and we were "deaf" to them, we took the picture of the broom and the one of the window as the headers for two columns, and then we stared trying to put other pictures into one column or the other based on whether they had the tone (pattern) of "broom" or "window" (and "broom" and "window" were also taken as the "names" of the two tones (patterns) so that the nurture could tell us for new words, which tone it was).

So we're sound-sorting words by tones.So far, not so good, but we believe it will get better. One problem is, of the two tones (patterns) one is not very common, so we have hardly any drawings in that column and a ten-foot-long vertical strip of little drawings in the other column. To make matters worse, we read now that there are three tones (patterns) in these languages. We thought we had an example of the third, but it turned out not to be so. Still looking.

We'll let you know if and when we overcome our "deafness"


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