Tuning in to language success

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 July, 1999, 12:00am

Students at Lingnan College have improved their English-speaking skills through a phonetics class which uses music and dance as the medium of instruction.

The innovative idea, initiated by Professor Raymond Huang, an expert on human speech and phonetics, gives language learners a fascinating insight into the unexplored world of intonation.

Professor Huang, with violin in hand, reproduces speech tones of English, Cantonese and Putonghua in a musical way.

'The speech sounds of the two languages share certain characteristics, but it's the rhythm and intonation which make them unique,' he said.

'As spoken Chinese is based on tones, each syllable tends to be regular in length. If the tone cannot be identified correctly, the meaning is lost.' English, meanwhile, depended on stress, intonation and rhythm to convey meaning, the linguist said. 'With music, one can create the tones and meanings of words above and beyond their dictionary definition,' he said.

'There are six tones in the English language that convey different feelings and attitudes, all of which can be captured on the strings of a violin.' Professor Huang uses a violin because he believes its smooth sound and 'gliding' quality best imitate the human voice. 'Although the viola and the cello can cover the range of speech sounds, the violin can mimic male and female voices more naturally,' he said.

Professor Huang also uses popular songs to help students speak English and Chinese naturally. English songs such as Five Hundred Miles, Lemon Tree and classical Cantonese opera songs such as When Will You Come Back? , My Dear and Death of a Royal Princess are used to illustrate the linking of consonants, vowels, rhythm and tones.

Using speeches by prominent figures such as Lady Diana, Baroness Thatcher and former governor Chris Patten, he demonstrates and compares standard English with regional sounds and accents in Hong Kong.

Students said the course enhanced their knowledge of phonetics and rhythm.

Luka Lo Ka-leung said: 'Learning to speak in a melodious way is an interesting experience. Most of us speak English without any feelings. But we can express friendliness, sincerity, indifference and impatience by using rising and falling tones.' Amanda Chan Hay-ching said the course helped her learn how to pronounce vowels and consonants accurately. 'I've learned how to make the right intonation when I speak.'