As you say it


Sometimes I watch TV programs in a language I don’t understand, just to hear the sound of it. Could be about a story about pandas, a political debate, a ballroom dancing contest. It’s weird, I know. But there’s something about the undulating sh-jo of Chinese, the staccato of Italian, the briskness of Hindi and the lyricism of those Spanish soap operas.

Music notes

It struck me again the other night when I was at a concert featuring baritone Luca Pisaroni. He was singing in Italian. I couldn’t understand a single word, but it didn’t bother me. It was operatic and isn’t it normal to not understand? It sounded splendid. Then intermission came and my friend and I realized the lyrics were in the booklet that had been foisted into our hands which we’d promptly shoved under our seats until intermission when we felt we should actually learn something about the show we were attending. So eyes scrunched up in the very dim light, I skimmed the lyrics in English to get the gist, then tried to follow in Italian. Lines like this:

Her troubles I fear
More than my own troubles
Because I live more in her
Than I live in myself

Lovely stuff. But it was exhausting to follow every word – and to what end? When it came down to it, I didn’t need to know the subject; you could tell what he was singing about by his smile or his furrow, his gestures. Natch. He is Italian, after all.

Music is language. And language is music. So maybe the next time you feel like listening to something fiery, forget iTunes and tune into an Italian talk show.


Intersections on CBC Radio


Intersections bannerCheck out the CBC Radio show I took a break from the blog to help create and produce. Here’s a summary:

It’s happening in office towers, restaurant kitchens, even in our own living rooms. Some call it a “clash of cultures”. We call it “Intersections”. It’s a show about how we connect – or not – in our ever-changing Canada. Spouses, colleagues, neighbours and friends talk about the cultural tensions in their relationships. Their unexpected, funny and poignant stories tell us more about who we are and where we’re heading, exposing some uncomfortable truths along the way.

Music makes the word go round


It’s easy to lapse into a sing-song way of talking to babies. Something along the lines of “I love you so much, oh yes I do, oh yes I do do do!”

It’s entertaining and elicitsIMG_1061 a smile or giggle – even some babble, in response. But the baby isn’t responding to what the mother is saying, so much as how she’s saying it.

University of Toronto Psychology professor Sandra Trehub has been looking into this, and presented at a symposium in May. It was the first one ever on music and language held by the Centre for Research on Brain, Language and Music in Montreal.

Trehub says babies are captivated by maternal speaking, but especially, by singing.

She says the prevailing belief is that language is acquired rapidly and effortlessly, and that music requires more effort. But she stresses that infants are naturally musical. They imitate their parents’ pitch as young as three months.

“So the mother might say ‘hi’ or ‘what are you doing’ and the child might go ‘hu-uh’,” says Trehub. “And later in the first year when infants engage in meaningless babble – baba, gaga – those who have listened to it carefully and measured it carefully, can recognize what language that child comes from. It has some of the rhythms and some of the intonation patterns.”

So if an infant is naturally musical, having a caregiver sing to them can boost their language development. Trehub says even though babies don’t understand the words, mothers can help them buy into language, through song.

“They sell infants on that form – the notion that that’s really interesting to listen to,” says Trehub. “And you know, months down the road, infants buy the content because they’ve already been captivated by the form.” Now, that’s some selling strategy.

ImageSinging teaches infants about how language is constructed. The words are presented slowly and rhythmically, so it’s easy to catch on. Some songs are highly predictable so babies find it very comfortable, and eventually join in.

Trehub says regular singing can help infants absorb words and sounds before they speak. So that when they actually start talking, they have a leg up.

To be clear, it’s live songs, sung to infants because it promotes reciprocal communication. Not listening to a disconnected recording like, say Baby Mozart (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).

Besides helping them develop language skills, song can actually help calm babies.

A recent study Trehub co-authored found a baby listened to a voice for four minutes before being distracted. But could listen to a singing voice for NINE minutes. It’s not known exactly why, but it could be due to vocal timbre, which creates pleasing sounds for baby.

Other research backs the benefits of singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to infants before they can speak, adding to a growing body of research singing the praises of song.

So if you like to sing, you might want to sing more to your baby. If not, well, just stick to talking. It’s also proving to give your child that linguistic leg up.

Have a listen!

The wisdom of Latin learning


Introduction to the Latin Tongue

March 11, 2013

For a dead language, Latin has taken on a life of its own. Pope Benedict boosted its profile when he announced he was retiring, and the Vatican is all abuzz with it as well. The Rome revival adds to the language’s recent popularity in TV, film and books like Harry Potter. But Latin doesn’t just open access to other worlds, it can also help us improve our English.

Have a listen here

Sports metaphors can be a long shot


February 4, 2013

We have to be faster, higher, and stronger! The media really jumped the gun on that story. Relax…Life is a marathon not a sprint.

Those are just a few Olympic terms we use to compare life to a high-level competition. And with one year to go to the Sochi Winter Games, we’ll likely be hearing more Olympic metaphors.

Metaphors help us understand the world by equating one concept with another. And whether you know it or not, we use them all the time. War is a game. A business is a family. Marriage is an institution; or, marriage is a partnership.

We use sports metaphors in particular.

Hail Mary pass

Hail Mary pass

We can use a football field to refer to making a desperate move like a Hail Mary pass or to run interference. A baseball field can represent struggle: we’re in the bottom of the ninth, or you need to step up to the plate.

Some Canadians stick with the ol’ hockey metaphor. Veteran communications specialist Barry McLoughlin gives an example:

“Look we’re ragging the puck on that issue right now, okay? You know we’re not going to release or announce this just yet, we’re ragging the puck. That’s a classic one that’s used extensively.”

McLoughlin says sports metaphors can be a great communication tool: “Whether you’re involved personally in sports, whether your kids are in soccer or in hockey, or whether your spouse is watching it on television, it becomes the language that everybody can share in”.

But McLoughlin adds that if you’re in the political or business world, using too many sports metaphors can be risky. “Because after awhile, it’s almost as if you’re taking the issue too lightly. Maybe you’re not getting the emotions and feelings behind it,” he says.

“This would be a concern in terms of your own sincerity and credibility.”

Indeed, the metaphors we use can tell us something about how we think. And what we think can determine how we act, and how we relate to other people.

Slap shot

Slap shot

So, what if you don’t see the world in terms of sticks and pucks?

McLaughlin says with more women in business and politics, sports metaphors could be on the way out: “I think we’re on a decline in the usage. It’s a heavy kind of legacy of a macho era, and it’s not seen as overly sophisticated.”

While some women do of course use sports metaphors, others prefer comparisons to home or family. For instance, describing government priorities in terms of balancing the household chequebook.

It’s less competitive – more cooperative.

New immigrants, too, are bringing different ways of seeing the world, and a passion for different sports. Soccer is Canada’s fastest growing sport, and there’s no shortage of people who see life as a soccer field where you don’t want to be shown the red card.

While the sports metaphors we use may be changing, it’s safe to say they’ll be around for as long as we play games.

May you ALL own the podium.

Listen to the audio here: