Dance Your PhD: Modeling the Perceptual Learning of Novel Dialect Features

Today’s blog post is a bit different. It’s in dance!

If that wasn’t quite clear enough for you, you can check this blog post for a more detailed explanation.

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Can what you think you know about someone affect how you hear them?

I’ll get back to “a male/a female” question in my next blog post (promise!), but for now I want to discuss some of the findings from my dissertation research. I’ve talked about my dissertation research a couple times before, but since I’m going to be presenting some of it in Spain (you can read the full paper here), I thought it would be a good time to share some of my findings.

In my dissertation, I’m looking at how what you think you know about a speaker affects what you hear them say. In particular, I’m looking at American English speakers who have just learned to correctly identify the vowels of New Zealand English. Due to an on-going vowel shift, the New Zealand English vowels are really confusing for an American English speaker, especially the vowels in the words “head”, “head” and “had”.

tokensVowelPlot
This plot shows individual vowel tokens by the frequency of thier first and second formants (high-intensity frequency bands in the vowel). Note that the New Zealand “had” is very close to the US “head”, and the New Zealand “head” is really close to the US “hid”.

These overlaps can be pretty confusing when American English speakers are talking to New Zealand English speakers, as this Flight of the Conchords clip shows!

The good news is that, as language users, we’re really good at learning new varieties of languages we already know, so it only takes a couple minutes for an American English speaker to learn to correctly identify New Zealand English vowels. My question was this: once an American English speaker has learned to understand the vowels of New Zealand English, how do they know when to use this new understanding?

In order to test this, I taught twenty one American English speakers who hadn’t had much, if any, previous exposure to New Zealand English to correctly identify the vowels in the words “head”, “heed” and “had”. While I didn’t play them any examples of a New Zealand “hid”–the vowel in “hid” is said more quickly in addition to having different formants, so there’s more than one way it varies–I did let them say that they’d heard “hid”, which meant I could tell if they were making the kind of mistakes you’d expect given the overlap between a New Zealand “head” and American “hid”.

So far, so good: everyone quickly learned the New Zealand English vowels. To make sure that it wasn’t that they were learning to understand the one talker they’d been listening to, I tested half of my listeners on both American English and New Zealand English vowels spoken by a second, different talker. These folks I told where the talker they were listening to was from. And, sure enough, they transferred what they’d learned about New Zealand English to the new New Zealand speaker, while still correctly identifying vowels in American English.

The really interesting results here, though, are the ones that came from the second half the listeners. This group I lied to. I know, I know, it wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but it was in the name of science and I did have the approval of my institutional review board, (the group of people responsible for making sure we scientists aren’t doing anything unethical).

In an earlier experiment, I’d played only New Zealand English as this point, and when I told them the person they were listening to was from America, they’d completely changed the way they listened to those vowels: they labelled New Zealand English vowels as if they were from American English, even though they’d just learned the New Zealand English vowels. And that’s what I found this time, too. Listeners learned the New Zealand English vowels, but “undid” that learning if they thought the speaker was from the same dialect as them.

But what about when I played someone vowels from their own dialect, but told them the speaker was from somewhere else? In this situation, listeners ignored my lies. They didn’t apply the learning they’d just done. Instead, the correctly treated the vowels of thier own dialect as if they were, in fact, from thier dialect.

At first glance, this seems like something of a contradiction: I just said that listeners rely on social information about the person who’s talking, but at the same time they ignore that same social information.

So what’s going on?

I think there are two things underlying this difference. The first is the fact that vowels move. And the second is the fact that you’ve heard a heck of a lot more of your own dialect than one you’ve been listening to for fifteen minutes in a really weird training experiment.

So what do I mean when I say vowels move? Well, remember when I talked about formants above? These are areas of high acoustic energy that occur at certain frequency ranges within a vowel and they’re super important to human speech perception. But what doesn’t show up in the plot up there is that these aren’t just static across the course of the vowel–they move. You might have heard of “diphthongs” before: those are vowels where there’s a lot of formant movement over the course of the vowel.

And the way that vowels move is different between different dialects. You can see the differences in the way New Zealand and American English vowels move in the figure below. Sure, the formants are in different places—but even if you slid them around so that they overlapped, the shape of the movement would still be different.

formantDynamics
Comparison of how the New Zealand and American English vowels move. You can see that the shape of the movement for each vowel is really different between these two dialects.  

Ok, so the vowels are moving in different ways. But why are listeners doing different things between the two dialects?

Well, remember how I said earlier that you’ve heard a lot more of your own dialect than one you’ve been trained on for maybe five minutes? My hypothesis is that, for the vowels in your own dialect, you’re highly attuned to these movements. And when a scientist (me) comes along and tells you something that goes against your huge amount of experience with these shapes, even if you do believe them, you’re so used to automatically understanding these vowels that you can’t help but correctly identify them. BUT if you’ve only heard a little bit of a new dialect you don’t have a strong idea of what these vowels should sound like, so if you’re going to rely more on the other types of information available to you–like where you’re told the speaker is from–even if that information is incorrect.

So, to answer the question I posed in the title, can what you think you know about someone affect how you hear them? Yes… but only if you’re a little uncertain about what you heard in the first place, perhaps becuase it’s a dialect you’re unfamiliar with.

Six Linguists of Color (who you can follow on Twitter!)

In the light of some recent white supremacist propaganda showing up on my campus, I’ve decided to spotlight a tiny bit of the amazing work being done around the country by linguists of color. Each of the scholars below is doing interesting, important linguistics research and has a Twitter account that I personally enjoy following. If you’re on this blog, you probably will as well! I’ll give you a quick intro to their research and, if it piques your interest, you can follow them on Twitter for all the latest updates.

(BTW, if you’re wondering why I haven’t included any grad students on this list, it’s becuase we generally don’t have as well developed of a research trajectory and I want this to be a useful resource for at least a few years.)

Montreal Twestival 2009 Cupcakes (3920802507)
These are some pretty sweet Twitter accounts! (Too much of a stretch?)

Anne Charity Hudley

Dr. Charity Hudley is professor at the College of William and Mary (Go Tribe!). Her research focuses on language variation, especially the use of varieties such as African American English, in the classroom. If you know any teachers, they might find her two books on language variation in the classroom a useful resource. She and Christine Mallinson have even released an app to go with them!

Michel DeGraff

Dr. Michel DeGraff is a professor at MIT. His research is on Haitian Creole, and he’s been very active in advocating for the official recognition of Haitian Creole as a distinct language. If you’re not sure what Haitian Creole looks like, go check out his Twitter; many of his tweets are in the language! He’s also done some really cool work on using technology to teach low-resource languages.

Nelson Flores

Dr. Nelson Flores is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His work focuses on how we create the ideas of race and language, as well as bilingualism/multilingualism and bilingual education. I really enjoy his thought-provoking discussions of recent events on his Twitter account. He also runs a blog, which is a good resource for more in-depth discussion.

Nicole Holliday

Dr. Nicole Holliday is (at the moment) Chau Mellon Postdoctoral Scholar at Pomona College. Her research focuses on language use by biracial speakers. I saw her talk on how speakers use pitch differently depending on who they’re talking to at last year’s LSA meeting and it was fantastic: I’m really looking forwards to seeing her future work! She’s also a contributor to Word., an online journal about African American English.

Rupal Patel

Dr. Rupal Patel is a professor at Northeastern University, and also the founder and CEO of VocaliD. Her research focuses on the speech of speakers with developmental  disabilities, and how technology can ease communication for them. One really cool project she’s working on that you can get involved with is The Human Voicebank. This is collection of voices from all over the world that is used to make custom synthetic voices for those who need them for day-to-day communication. If you’ve got a microphone and a quiet room you can help out by recording and donating your voice.

John R. Rickford

Last, but definitely not least, is Dr. John Rickford, a professor at Stanford. If you’ve taken any linguistics courses, you’re probably already familiar with his work. He’s one of the leading scholars working on African American English and was crucial in bringing a research-based evidence to bare on the Ebonics controversy. If you’re interested, he’s also written a non-academic book on African American English that I would really highly recommend; it even won the American Book Award!

Great ideas in linguistics: Language acquisition

Courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood rng, this week’s great idea in linguistics is… language acquisition! Or, in other words, the process of learning  a language. (In this case, learning your first language when you’re a little baby, also known as L1 acquisition; second-language learning, or L2 acquisition, is a whole nother bag of rocks.) Which begs the question: why don’t we just call it language learning and call it a day? Well, unlike learning to play baseball, turn out a perfect soufflé or kick out killer DPS, learning a language seems to operate under a different set of rules. Babies don’t benefit from direct language instruction and it may actually hurt them.

In other words:

Language acquisition is process unique to humans that allows us to learn our first language without directly being taught it.

Which doesn’t sound so ground-breaking… until you realize that that means that language use is utterly unique among human behaviours. Oh sure, we learn other things without being directly taught them, even relatively complex behaviours like swallowing and balancing. But unlike speaking, these aren’t usually under concious control and when they are it’s usually because something’s gone wrong. Plus, as I’ve discussed before, we have the ability to be infinitely creative with language. You can learn to make a soufflé without knowing what happens when you combine the ingredients in every possible combination, but knowing a language means that you know rules that allow you to produce all possible utterances in that language.

So how does it work? Obviously, we don’t have all the answers yet, and there’s a lot of research going on on how children actually learn language. But we do know what it generally tends to look like, precluding things like language impairment or isolation.

  1. Vocal play. The kid’s figured out that they have a mouth capable of making noise (or hands capable of making shapes and movements) and are practising it. Back in the day, people used to say that infants would make all the sounds of all the world’s languages during this stage. Subsequent research, however, suggests that even this early children are beginning to reflect the speech patterns of people around them.
  2. Babbling. Kids will start out with very small segments of language, then repeat the same little chunk over and over again (canonical babbling), and then they’ll start to combine them in new ways (variegated babbling). In hearing babies, this tends to be syllables, hence the stereotypical “mamamama”. In Deaf babies it tends to be repeated hand motions.
  3. One word stage. By about 13 months, most children will have begun to produce isolated words. The intended content is often more than just the word itself, however. A child shouting “Dog!” at this point could mean “Give me my stuffed dog” or “I want to go see the neighbour’s terrier” or “I want a lion-shaped animal cracker” (since at this point kids are still figuring out just how many four-legged animals actually are dogs). These types of sentences-in-a-word are known as holophrases.
  4. Two word stage. By two years, most kids will have moved on to two-word phrases, combining words in way that shows that they’re already starting to get the hang of their language’s syntax. Morphology is still pretty shaky, however: you’re not going to see a lot of tense markers or verbal agreement.
  5. Sentences. At this point, usually around age four, people outside the family can generally understand the child. They’re producing complex sentences and have gotten down most, if not all, of the sounds in their language.

These general stages of acquisition are very robust. Regardless of the language, modality or even age of acquisition we still see these general stages. (Although older learners may never completely acquire a language due to, among other things, reduced neuroplasticity.) And the fact they do seem to be universal is yet more evidence that language acquisition is a unique process that deserves its own field of study.

Are television and mass media destroying regional accents?

One of the occupational hazards of linguistics is that you are often presented with spurious claims about language that are relatively easy to quantifiably disprove. I think this is probably partly due to the fact that there are multiple definitions of ‘linguist. As a result, people tend to equate mastery of a language with explicit knowledge of it’s workings. Which, on the one hand, is reasonable. If you know French, the idea is that you know how to speak French, but also how it works. And, in general, that isn’t the case. Partly because most language instruction is light on discussions of grammatical structures–reasonably so; I personally find inductive grammar instruction significantly more helpful, though the research is mixed–and partly because, frankly, there’s a lot that even linguists don’t know about how grammar works. Language is incredibly complex, and we’ve only begun to explore and map out that complexity. But there are a few things we are reasonably certain we know. And one of those is that your media consumption does not “erase” your regional dialect [pdf]. The premise is flawed enough that it begins to collapse under it’s own weight almost immediately. Even the most dedicated American fans of Dr. Who or Downton Abby or Sherlock don’t slowly develop British accents.

Christopher Eccleston Thor 2 cropped
Lots of planets have a North with a distinct accent that is not being destroyed by mass media.
So why is this myth so persistent? I think that the most likely answer is that it is easy to mischaracterize what we see on television and to misinterpret what it means. Standard American English (SAE), what newscasters tend to use, is a dialect. It’s not just a certain set of vowels but an entire, internally consistent grammatical system.  (Failing to recognize that dialects are more than just adding a couple of really noticeable sounds or grammatical structures is why some actors fail so badly at trying to portray a dialect they don’t use regularly.) And not only  is it a dialect, it’s a very prestigious dialect. Not only newscasters make use of it, but so do political figures, celebrities, and pretty much anyone who has a lot of social status. From a linguistic perspective, SAE is no better or worse than any other dialect. From a social perspective, however, SAE has more social capital than most other dialects. That means that being able to speak it, and speak it well, can give you opportunities that you might not otherwise have had access to. For example, speakers of Southern American English are often characterized as less intelligent and educated. And those speakers are very aware of that fact, as illustrated in this excrpt from the truely excellent PBS series Do You Speak American:

ROBERT:

Do you think northern people think southerners are stupid because of the way they talk?

JEFF FOXWORTHY:

Yes I think so and I think Southerners really don’t care that Northern people think that eh. You know I mean some of the, the most intelligent people I’ve ever known talk like I do. In fact I used to do a joke about that, about you know the Southern accent, I said nobody wants to hear their brain surgeon say, ‘Al’ight now what we’re gonna do is, saw the top of your head off, root around in there with a stick and see if we can’t find that dad burn clot.’

So we have pressure from both sides: there are intrinsic social rewards for speaking SAE, and also social consequences for speaking other dialects. There are also plenty of linguistic role-models available through the media, from many different backgrounds, all using SAE. If you consider these facts alone it seems pretty easy to draw the conclusion that regional dialects in America are slowly being replaced by a prestigious, homogeneous dialect.

Except that’s not what’s happening at all. Some regional dialects of American English are actually becoming more, rather than less, prominent. On the surface, this seems completely contradictory. So what’s driving this process, since it seems to be contradicting general societal pressure? The answer is that there are two sorts of pressure. One, the pressure from media, is to adopt the formal, standard style. The other, the pressure from family, friends and peers, is to retain and use features that mark you as part of your social network. Giles, Taylor and Bourhis showed that identification with a certain social group–in their case Welsh identity–encourages and exaggerates Welsh features. And being exposed to a standard dialect that is presented as being in opposition to a local dialect will actually increase that effect. Social identity is constructed through opposition to other social groups. To draw an example from American politics, many Democrats define themselves as “not Republicans” and as in opposition to various facets of “Republican-ness”. And vice versa.

Now, the really interesting thing is this: television can have an effect on speaker’s dialectal features But that effect tends to be away from, rather than towards, the standard. For example, some Glaswegian English speakers have begun to adopt features of Cockney English based on their personal affiliation with the  show EastendersIn light of what I discussed above, this makes sense. Those speakers who had adopted the features are of a similar social and socio-economic status as the characters in Eastenders. Furthermore, their social networks value the characters who are shown using those features, even though they are not standard. (British English places a much higher value on certain sounds and sound systems as standard. In America, even speakers with very different sound systems, e.g. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, can still be considered standard.) Again, we see retention and re-invigoration of features that are not standard through a construction of opposition. In other words, people choose how they want to sound based on who they want to be seen as. And while, for some people, this means moving towards using more SAE, in others it means moving away from the standard.

One final note: Another factor which I think contributes to the idea that television is destroying accents is the odd idea that we all only have one dialect, and that it’s possible to “lose” it. This is patently untrue. Many people (myself included) have command of more than one dialect and can switch between them when it’s socially appropriate, or blend features from them for a particular rhetorical effect. And that includes people who generally use SAE. Oprah, for example, will often incorporate more features of African American English when speaking to an African American guest.  The bottom line is that television and mass media can be a force for linguistic change, but they’re hardly the great homogonizier that it is often claimed they are.

For other things I’ve written about accents and dialects, I’d recommend:

  1. Why do people  have accents? 
  2. Ask vs. Aks
  3. Coke vs. Soda vs. Pop

Why do I really, really love West African languages?

So I found a wonderful free app that lets you learn Yoruba, or at least Yoruba words,  and posted about it on Google plus. Someone asked a very good question: why am I interested in Yoruba? Well, I’m not interested just in Yoruba. In fact, I would love to learn pretty much any western African language or, to be a little more precise, any Niger-Congo language.

Niger-Congo-en
This map’s color choices make it look like a chocolate-covered ice cream cone.
Why? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I’ve got a huge language crush on them. Whoa there, you might be thinking, you’re a linguist. You’re not supposed to make value judgments on languages. Isn’t there like a linguist code of ethics or something? Well, not really, but you are right. Linguists don’t usually make value judgments on languages. That doesn’t mean we can’t play favorites!  And West African languages are my favorites. Why? Because they’re really phonologically and phonetically interesting. I find the sounds and sound systems of these languages rich and full of fascinating effects and processes. Since that’s what I study within linguistics, it makes sense that that’s a quality I really admire in a language.

What are a few examples of Niger-Congo sound systems that are just mind blowing? I’m glad you asked.

  • Yoruba: Yoruba has twelve vowels. Seven of them are pretty common (we have all but one in American English) but if you say four of them nasally, they’re different vowels. And if you say a nasal vowel when you’re not supposed to, it’ll change the entire meaning of a word. Plus? They don’t have a ‘p’ or an ‘n’ sound. That is crazy sauce! Those are some of the most widely-used sounds in human language. And Yoruba has a complex tone system as well. You probably have some idea of the level of complexity that can add to a sound system if you’ve ever studied Mandarin, or another East Asian language. Seriously, their sound system makes English look childishly simplistic.
  • Akan: There are several different dialects of Akan, so I’ll just stick to talking about Asante, which is the one used in universities and for official business. It’s got a crazy consonant system. Remember how  Yoruba didn’t have an “n” sound? Yeah, in Akan they have nine. To an English speaker they all  pretty much sound the same, but if you grew up speaking Akan you’d be able to tell the difference easily. Plus, most sounds other than “p”, “b”, “f” or “m” can be made while rounding the lips (linguists call this “labialized” and are completely different sounds). They’ve also got a vowel harmony system, which means you can’t have vowels later in a word that are completely different from vowels earlier in the word. Oh, yeah, and tones and a vowel nasalization distinction and some really cool tone terracing. I know, right? It’s like being a kid in a candy store.

But how did these language get so cool? Well, there’s some evidence that these languages have really robust and complex sound systems because the people speaking them never underwent large-scale migration to another Continent. (Obviously, I can’t ignore the effects of colonialism or the slave trade, but it’s still pretty robust.) Which is not to say that, say, Native American languages don’t have awesome sound systems; just just tend to be slightly smaller on average.

Now that you know how kick-ass these languages, I’m sure you’re chomping at the bit to hear some of them. Your wish is my command; here’s a song in Twi (a dialect of Akan) from one of my all-time-favorite musicians: Sarkodie. (He’s making fun of Ghanaian emigrants who forget their roots. Does it get any better than biting social commentary set to a sick beat?)

What’s the best way to teach grammar?

The night before last I had the good fortune to see Goeff Pullum, noted linguist and linguistics blogger, give a talk entitled: The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it. It was an engaging talk and clearly showed that the basis for many of the “grammar rules” that are taught in English language and composition courses have little to no bearing on how the English language is actually used. Some of the bogeyman rules (his term) that he lambasted included the interdiction against ending a sentence in a preposition, the notion that “since” can only to refer to the passage of time and not causality and the claim that only “which” can begin a restrictive clause. Counterexamples for all of these “grammar rules” are easy to find, both in written and spoken language. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out Geoff Pullum on Language Log.)

Evaluarán las distintas estrategias para enseñar a leer en los establecimientos subvencionados chilenos
“And then they python ate little Johnny because he had the gall to cheekily split his infinitives.”
So there’s a clear problem here. Rules that have no bearing on linguistic reality are being used as the backbone of grammar instruction, just as they have for over two hundred years. Meanwhile, the investigation of human language has advanced considerably. We know much more about the structure of language now than we did when E. B. White was writing his grammar guide. It’s linguistic inquiry that has lead to better speech therapy, speech recognition and synthesis programs and better foreign language teaching. Grammar, on the other hand, has led to little more than frustration and an unsettling elitism. (We all know at least one person who uses their “knowledge” of “correct” usage as a weapon.) So what can be done about it? Well, I propose that instead of traditional “grammar”, we teach “grammar” as linguists understand it. What’s the difference?

Traditional grammar: A variety of usage and style rules that are based on social norms and a series of historic accidents.

Linguistic grammar: The set of rules which can accurately discribe a native speaker’s knowaldge of their language.

I’m not the first person to suggest a linguistics education as a valuable addition to the pre-higher educational experience. You can read proposals and arguments from others herehere, and here, and an argument for more linguistics in higher education here.

So, why would you want to teach linguistic grammar? After all, by the time you’re five or six, you already have a pretty good grasp of your language. (Not a perfect one, as it turns out; things like the role of stress in determining the relationship between words in a phrase tend to come in pretty late in life.) Well, there are lots of reasons.

  • Linguistic grammar is the result of scientific inquiry and is empirically verifiable. This means that lessons on linguistic grammar can take the form of experiments and labs rather than memorizing random rules.
  • Linguistic grammar is systematic. This can appeal to students who are gifted at math and science but find studying language more difficult.
  • Linguistic grammar is a good way to gently introduce higher level mathematics. Semantics, for example, is a good way to introduce set theory or lambda calculus.
  • Linguistic grammar is immediately applicable for students. While it’s difficult to find applications for oceanology for students who live in Kansas, everyone uses language every day, giving students a multitude of opportunities to apply and observe what they’re learned.
  • Linguistic grammar shows that variation between different languages and dialects is systematic, logical and natural. This can help reduce the linguistic prejudice that speakers of certain languages or dialects face.
  • Linguistic grammar helps students in learning foreign languages.  For example, by increasing students’ phonetic awareness (that’s their awareness of language sounds) and teaching them how to accurately describe and produce sounds, we can avoid the frustration of not knowing what sound they’re attempting to produce and its relation to sounds they already know.
  • Knowledge of linguistic grammar, unlike traditional grammar, is relatively simple to evaluate. Since much of introductory linguistics consists of looking at data sets and constructing rules that would generate that data set, and these rules are either correct or not, it is easier to determine whether or not the student has mastered the concepts.

I could go on, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. The main point is this: teaching linguistics is a viable and valuable way to replace traditional grammar education. What needs to happen for linguistic grammar to supplant traditional grammar? That’s a little thornier. At the very least, teachers need to receive linguistic training and course materials appropriate  for various ages need to be developed. A bigger problem, though, is a general lack of public knowledge about linguistics. That’s part of why I write this blog; to let you know about what’s going on in a small but very productive field. Linguistics has a lot to offer, and I hope that in the future more and more people will take us up on it.