Early Language Mapping: How Infants Learn Pronunciation

Why do Americans struggle with differentiating between the “shee” (“west”) and “chee” (“wife”) sounds in Mandarin?

Why do the Japanese struggle with the “l” and “r” sounds in “lake” and “rake”?

University of Washington speech professor Patricia Kuhl has the answer.

Map-Building

Having studied early language development for nearly three decades, Kuhl has a better understanding than most of how and when pronunciation and accents develop.

Before a baby even speaks her first word, a pattern of speaking has formed in the brain, based on her primary caregiver’s speech.

With American, Japanese, Swedish, and Russian infant participants, Kuhl found that vowel and consonant sounds of both native and foreign languages are clearly recognized by children between 6 to 8 months. 

That means an American infant can recognize and respond to the differences in “shee” and “chee,” while the Japanese infant will differentiate between “l” and “r” just as easily as an American.

Head-Turn Study

Kuhl used a “head-turn” study to identify whether infants could recognize these sounds.

While distracting an infant with a toy, the speaker would repeat a sound over and over – “la, la, la,” for instance.

The infant would continue watching the toy until she would hear a different sound mixed in – “la, la, ra”  – which would then light up the toy.

In anticipation of the reward, two-thirds of both Japanese and American 6- to 8-month-old infants would turn to look at the toy when the sound changed.

That ability was lost by the time the child reached one year.

Using the same sounds, a little over half of Japanese infants and nearly four-fifths of Americans would turn to look at the toy by the time the infants had reached a year.

The study concluded that this is when native sounds become the baby’s norm.

Magnet Effect

A Smithsonian article by Edwin Kiester, Jr., throws this map-building into further relief, with Kuhl describing the mapping of the baby’s language brain:

“The baby early begins to draw a kind of map of the sounds he hears. That map continues to develop and strengthen as the sounds are repeated. The sounds not heard, the synapses not used, are bypassed and pruned from the brain’s network. Eventually the sounds and accent of the language become automatic.”

A “magnet effect” further maps the native language, as prototypical sounds are absorbed and interpreted as native, while foreign sounds are discarded as “interference.” 

And what of infants born in bilingual households?

Those infant brains simply draw multiple maps, which is made easier if a specific language is spoken in the pitch, tone, and pronunciation of either caregiver.

This is why foreign languages are difficult to learn into adulthood: your language brain has long been mapped, and it’s a struggle to tune into sounds your brain wiring perceives as “interference.”

But this does not mean it’s impossible.

We’ll talk about the possibility next week.

Affected Accents: From RP to Mid-Atlantic, Does an Accent Indicate Your Social Class?

If you want to climb the social ladder, you’d better develop the accent for it.

All kidding aside, accents often suggest a certain social class and give the – wink – to those in yours.

Thing Gatsby’s affected British accent in The Great Gatsby.

In Great Britain itself, accents have long been a way to differentiate between the aristocracy and those of the working-class population.

Inference in Accents

George Bernard Shaw wrote in his book, Pygmalion

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

Through accent and dialect, a listener can infer several things:

  • Where the person is from
  • What his social standing is
  • His general background

And when you can infer things about a person, prejudices or stereotypes associated with those inferences might move you to pass judgment based solely on the way someone speaks.

Received Pronunciation & Mid-Atlantic Accents

Regional accents in Great Britain were quite static up until the late 20th century, because many English people were working class and couldn’t afford to travel.

Their isolation forged broad regional accents and dialects, like Cockney and Brummie.

However, those who belonged to the upper echelons of society – the aristocracy and noble classes – had the opportunity to move freely…to a point.

They were mainly mixing with only those of their own social class.

This created a distinct neutral accent called Received Pronunciation (RP), which is largely spoken by Westminster politicians.

The U.S. – or, more specifically, the Golden Age of Hollywood – comparatively produced the Mid-Atlantic accent.

Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are well-known speakers of it: an affected accent that nobody actually speaks, named for the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where nobody actually lives.

Similarly, RP became an affected social accent used at prestigious schools and universities in the 19th century, so much so that it is said to be the native accent for about 3 percent of the UK’s current population.

Like the Mid-Atlantic accent, the “r” sound is dropped, conveying a sense of refinement and wealth.

Order becomes “awdah.”

Work becomes “wuhk.”

RP also splits off into various distinct accents based on certain social categories.

Mainstream RP is commonly used by BBC journalists, for instance.

Conservative RP is used by the aristocracy and older generations.

Contemporary RP is used by younger generations and is similar to Estuary English (spoken in southeast England’s Home Counties region).

Because the upper social classes largely socialize with only each other, their accents were allowed to grow in isolation from regional accents and dialects. 

Brummie vs. Cockney: Differences in Dynamic Dialects

If you speak English, you might think Brits sound “posher” than Americans.

Many Americans think so.

There’s a certain air of authority and sophistication in what one might term the “British accent.”

But funnily enough, the umbrella term we use for the “British accent” is basically the Queen’s English.

There are dozens of regional British accents and dialects within the language, all very different from one another.

Last week, we talked about the rhyming slang of the working-class Cockney dialect.

This week, let’s explore its West Midland cousin: Brummie.

Birmingham Brummie

The term, Brummie, comes from the city of Brummagem, which was founded in the UK in 600 AD.

Although the city later became known as Birmingham, the name is commonly shortened to Brum, and locals are known as Brummies.

What’s It Sound Like

If you hear the Brummie accent in Birmingham, you might think, “Oy kwoyt loik it.”

But you might be alone in that.

If you’re trying to conjure up the Brummie accent without audio, possibly the most famous Brummie is Ozzy Osbourne.

Brummies are often portrayed in media as being daft or slow.

While there was a similar stigma for East Enders, there is a certain appeal to the Cockney accent amongst the Brits.

For many, the Brummie dialect does not carry with it that same charm.

James Kenny of Owlcation writes, 

“Of all the accents and dialects spoken around the British Isles, none attract as much scorn as the Brummie accent…Quite why this is, I’m not quite sure, but then again I am a Brummie myself, and therefore to my ears Brummie sounds wonderful.”

How Does Brummie Differ From Cockney & Scouse

While Cockney is known for its rhyming slang, Brummie is better known for its accent in the form of ending sentences in a downbeat.

This is in direct opposition to the Scouse accent of Liverpool, where the intonation rises in pitch.

Another unique aspect of Brummie is its monotonous tone and nonexistent aural variation. 

In comparison, Cockney is more upbeat in tone.

Brummie Slang

Just like any dialect, Brummie also has its own slang.

Some examples:

  • To say yes, you might utter “ar”
  • When complaining, you are “aggin’”
  • If you’re clumsy, you might be “cack-handed”
  • When you’re trying to flee the coppers, you’d be “legging it”
  • If you’re wearing a flat cap of the early 20th century Birmingham gang, you’re wearing a “peaky blinder” (yes, like the show)

These are just some of many terms that make up the Brummie “code.”

Next week, we’ll talk more about stereotypes related to dialects and accents.

British English, American English, Antarctic English: How Do Accents Develop?

A group of British researchers spent months alone on the isolated continent of Antarctica.

There, an acoustic analysis was made of their speech characteristics as individuals.

In a matter of months, changes were observed.

The acoustical study created a computational model based partially on a common accent in Antarctica to predict the phonetic changes they expected to hear from this group’s prolonged isolation.

Recorded productions of the participating individuals were then taken and compared to the model.

In some ways, the model predicted the phonetic changes in the individuals’ accents.

Published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the results suggest that the initial stages of phonetic changes in accent occur incrementally when individuals in isolation interact.

Let’s delve deeper into this example of how accents and phonetics develop across the same language.

Shared Spoken Idiosyncrasies

Defining a spoken accent as “shared spoken idiosyncrasies across a community of speakers,” the study touches upon theories regarding potential evolutionary reasoning behind the development of accents.

Some evolutionists theorize that, due to its difficulty in imitation by outsiders, the function of an accent can allow the in-group to identify imposters, while simultaneously breeding cooperation, coordination, and camaraderie amongst individuals with the same accent.

Children are more apt at developing accents than adults, because the phonetic specifications are highly dependent on precise timing and vocal organ coordination, which is more easily acquired at a younger age.

How Accents Form

In this study, communication density was identified as the primary catalyst for accent formation.

This means that who you talk to and how often you talk to them can influence the early stages of accent formation.

The Antarctic researchers’ unique position of isolation created an environment resembling a microcosm of a former colonial settlement.

There was little-to-no communication with outside groups and yet regular communication with each other.

Being inside this bubble amplified the results.

BrainStuff’s Laurie L. Dove notes that the two primary factors influencing accent are isolation and human nature.

Dove writes,

“Human nature, vague as it sounds, simply refers to our innate love of being in groups. When a human is part of a crowd, they identify membership by wearing certain styles of clothing or eating specific foods. That group of people also may speak a certain way — so distinctly so that an accent becomes part of the group’s identity.”

What else impacts accent formation?

Next week, we’ll talk about social class, migration, and invasion.

Sociolinguistics, Language Prejudice, & Regional Stereotypes

Y’all come back now, ya hear?” – Ellie May, The Beverly Hillbillies

No one ever lived after he’d decided ter kill ‘em, no one except you, an’ he’d killed some o’ the best witches an’ wizards of the age — an’ you was only a baby, an’ you lived.” – Hagrid, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Whether you realize it or not, you may judge each of these phraseologies and their accents based on where you live.

If you’re from America, you might associate certain stereotypes with the South, and the obvious Southern drawl might trigger prejudice, whether consciously or subconsciously.

One example of this appears in The Routledge Handbook of Sociolinguistics Around the World, wherein a detailed study was conducted by Bucholtz, Bermudez, Fung, Edwards, and Vargas on the perceptual dialectology of California in 2007.

The study found:

“that the most salient linguistic boundary is between the northern and southern regions, although, reminiscent of Clopper and Pisoni (2006), category labels ranging from ‘surfers’ to ‘hicks’ played a role in the social map.”

Essentially, the way you speak – often regionally-based or relative to your sub-culture – may result in a label of some kind.

If you’re from Britain, a coarser accent, like the one spoken by Hagrid above, might be associated with lower-class stereotypes, as opposed to those considered “posh.” 

As mentioned last week, the wealthier classes have always attempted to distinguish themselves through their language’s social patterning. The lower class accents and phraseology, therefore, are often distinctly different from those of the aristocracy.

Either accent might trigger conscious or subconscious prejudices as well. As soon as a person’s mouth opens to speak, their class may be revealed, and the prejudices associated become sharp and glaring.

Sociolinguistics visits all of this and more.

What is sociolinguistics?

Sociolinguistics is “the study of language in relation to social factors, including differences of regional, class, and occupational dialect, gender differences, and bilingualism.” – Oxford

The sociolinguistics of a country are often nationally-based.

Funnily enough, Americans, who speak English, might not be able to differentiate between the stereotypically “posh” accents and the stereotypically lower- or middle-class ones in the UK.

They may not feel the same prejudices against the person speaking as their British counterparts, whose ear is attuned to these differences and mind is attuned to the prejudices associated with them in their country.

Likewise, those from other English-speaking countries likely don’t have the same associations with the American Southern accent and the South as Americans do.

Therefore, for foreigners, specific social patterning might not reinforce the regional prejudice related to these stereotypes, such as a person’s level of education or intelligence.

This is all deeply entrenched, rooted in the history of the country, regions, and the values, norms, traits, and behaviors associated with them across time.

Whether the regional values, norms, traits, and behaviors have evolved or not, the linguistic stereotypes remain.