Not Lost in Translation, but Lost in Intonation

Hello! My name is Sebastian Leal-Arenas, a third-year doctoral student in the University of Pittsburgh’s Linguistics Department with a specialisation in Spanish Linguistics. I am really passionate about language acquisition, especially that of L2-L3-Ln speakers, and their attainment of intonation patterns –you know, that melody that makes us go “Oh, they’re from [insert location here].”

As a learner of English, I have realised how important those subtle, yet significant shifts in one’s speech are, for they convey meanings that are not encoded in words alone. Thus, my advisor, Dr Marta Ortega-Llebaria, and I are working on the development of a module to help learners of Spanish to rethink their default strategies to express specific ideas. You may be thinking: “What? What does that mean?” Well, let me explain. Imagine that you suddenly hear someone cry and one of your friends asks, “What’s happening?” and you notice that there is a baby crying. Likely, your answer would be something like “a/the baby’s crying,” where the word baby will receive more emphasis than the rest of the words. If you’ve been surrounded by the English language all your life, you may not notice that the word baby is pronounced louder that the and crying, and if you know nothing about linguistics, you may not know why a sentence like that is absolutely fascinating (long story short: the way that sentence is uttered is an exception to a rule that states that the last lexical item in a sentence, crying in this case, should sound louder). The issue arises when speakers want to apply the same melody to a similar sentence in another language. This creates wrong emphasis, which may lead to communication breakdowns and even misunderstandings, sort of like the use of commas in “let’s eat, grandma.” Now, an answer to that question in Spanish would be “llora el bebé” where the most relevant part is moved to the end of the sentence. Obviously, that works for this specific situation, but there are other sentences that are the same but use different linguistic devices to distinguish them from one another. This is what the module that we have been designing is about: learning the different contexts in which different strategies are to be used by learners of Spanish.

While thinking about my research interests, my advisor and I noticed that there are not many materials focused on the teaching of aspects of Spanish pronunciation that go beyond the learning of sounds. What is more, the materials that are available are not aimed at the learning/acquisition of these features, but at its recognition in a more academic way. The main collection that we will be using for the module is the Interactive Atlas of Spanish Intonation, which is a collection of dialects of Spanish that shows and explains the main suprasegmental differences between dialects. One important part of this resource is that it is a collaboration by renown researchers all over the world.

The end goal would be to have the module available online for anyone interested in it. While coming up with activities and sorting through the material to be used has been challenging, one of the obstacles we’ve been facing is the learning of website creation.

I hope this short entry gives you an idea that language learning is not just about words and grammar!

Sebastian Leal-Arenas
Linguistics (Spanish Linguistics)
May 2022
Learn about all the projects from the Curricular Development Opportunity for Ph.D. Students