My wife made a comment which made wheels turn in my head. Her comment was about the sounds our son would make, sounds that seemed like speech yet wasn’t. The situation we have here in our household is the one parent one language model. My initial idea was that he was just trying to mimic words but when I really listened to what he said, it seemed that his intonation patterns were close to English when he interacted with me, and more Japanese when he interacted with my wife.
Judging from my sons example, intonation may to be the first thing that children pick up when the try to make sense of the sounds they encounter from their family, friends, teachers, etc.
When thinking about formal language teaching, in our attempt to teach vocabulary, listening ability, writing, and that favorite of all, grammar, teachers tend to neglect this simple reality. Seems counter intuitive for a teacher, but seemingly true, that how the intonation is mimicked then the vocabulary, is filled in. Is it a structure, like the intonation pattern of a question, which is then gradually clarified when the child can pronounce the words? Then when that is in place, meaning?
It brings to mind one of my teachers: Dr. Marshal Childs http://www.tuj.ac.jp/newsite/main/tesol/tokyo/faculty.html when he mentioned something like this in a class for Applied Linguistics. His suggestion for students to get the “feeling of the language” was by just making sounds that seemed like English but with words that did not make any sense, like mimicking the mid twentieth century comic, Jimmy Durante. (Interesting choice) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Durante
“Skidda a rink a rinky dink, skidda a rinky doo.”
When I first heard of this, well it was hard to really appreciate at the time since I more attached to ideas of teaching vocabulary, multi word units, collocations, etc.
But looking at my sons example now, the Jimmy Durante idea is brilliant, which is why nursery rhymes are so important for children. Of course it doesn’t make sense to an adult, but that is not the point, it is how the language is organized via the intonation. With English it is rising and falling, reduced vowels and stressed vowels. Stresses emphasized regardless of the length of the sentence depending on the information contained.
With Japanese, you have a syllable timed language where all the vowels are stressed, following a consistent rhythm. Also the some vowels are lengthened to vary the meaning of words.
Bōzu ga byōbu ni jōzu ni Bōzu no e wo kakimashita.
This example appeared in a TV show on NHK (Japanese Public Broadcasting Network) called “Lets play in Japanese” if these songs employed to learn a first language, then it follows that it could be the same for acquiring a second.