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You Hum It, I'll Play It!

My recent visit to Estonia included a weekend off, and during that time, I did some Yoga and Pilates classes. I don’t speak the language, but I nevertheless found it relatively easy to follow instructions. I think this reflects some important points about basic levels of communication.

Because I had taken a great many classes in English, I knew the phrases that the instructor was likely to use. Although I couldn’t make out the exact words, I began to recognise the sounds that represented inhaling and exhaling, or breathing in and breathing out. I didn’t know exactly what, “Lolli, lolli, lolli,” meant (or even if that’s how it should look on the page!) but it was a logical assumption that the meaning was something like slowly or gently or carefully.

My brain was putting together knowledge it had accumulated through experience at home, matching that with recognisable repetitions throughout the class, and using some astute guesswork to make meaning within this unfamiliar language. Alongside this, there’s the cadence to pay attention to; despite Estonian being unrelated to English (interestingly, it only shares a common root with Finnish and Hungarian) it still holds true that the intonation gives clues to the meaning. No-one shouts or uses a higher pitch if they want someone to move slowly and carefully.

It struck me that these are the sorts of indicators that babies are looking out for when they are first exposed to the language they will be expected to learn and speak as a native.

It is consistency that allows the learner to spot patterns and make assumptions about what is being communicated. Naturally we are going to use the same words to describe the same objects, but how often do we think about keeping other elements of our speech constant and predictable? As adults, working in our mother tongue, we tend to focus only words, falling back on decades of instinct to take care of the rest, but we will be really helping our children learn if we pause to consider that they are paying attention to the whole package.