Jazz English oral skills up! – Rhythm instruction as a tool to improve English second language speakers' prosody

Leticia Quesada Vázquez

Have you ever wondered what is behind that musical feeling that lies beneath a hip hop hit? Is it just the background music or can we still perceive its symphony if we turn the tune off? Are just some sticky rhymes what make poetry harmonious? Music and language have been walking hand to hand throughout humanity’s history because they share some structural features through which their symbiosis is possible, being rhythm in the foundations of both of them: as music diverges in various music genres that are built on different rhythmic beats, languages all over the world follow dissimilar rhythmic patterns. Therefore, in the same way a professional ballet dancer can have difficulties to dance tango and his/her performance can fail to transmit emotion and savoir-faire, a native Spanish/Catalan speaker can have problems when communicating in English, failing to transmit and understand the message because he/she is not using the right rhythm.

English and Spanish are known to have contrasting rhythms that can hinder English as a second language (ESL) learner’s communication in the target language: while it takes approximately the same amount of time to utter syllables in Spanish or Catalan (syllable-timed rhythm), in English stressed syllables are lengthened and unstressed ones shortened (stress-timed rhythm). Therefore, some students’ typical reactions to English contributions such as “that person spoke too fast” or “did the speaker really say that? I haven’t heard it” may be explained by an unconscious transfer of the Spanish/Catalan syllable-timed rhythm to an English speech; likewise, Spanish/Catalan speakers may be difficult to understand by English natives when speaking English due to a breakdown in the use of a stress-timed rhythm.

My research tries to demonstrate that ESL learners can improve their overall intelligibility, comprehensibility and fluency by means of rhythm instruction in the classroom. For this purpose, a pronunciation module divided into 10 weekly sessions of 30 minutes each has been designed: not only will the experimental group be told about the difference between the mother tongue (L1) and the second language (L2) rhythms, but also it will familiarize with English rhythm through explicit training in different contexts (from controlled practice to spontaneous interventions), while the control group won’t. Results are expected to show higher scores in the posttests of the experimental group in terms of comprehensibility, intelligibility and fluency, supporting that rhythm instruction improves ESL learners’ prosody and, hence, their overall communication in the target language.