Tag Archives: language

The Vanishing of Accents

Have you ever stopped to think about accents? I’m not talking about accents we use to create emphasis on syllables or words, but in terms of the way a specific nation pronounces a language. It’s important to note that accents aren’t the same as dialects. An accent is all about how people sound. A dialect encompasses the idea of accents, but it extends farther by touching on the particular grammar a person uses when talking. A great example is the word “y’all”, which tends to be used by Southerners in the United States. The use of the word “y’all” would be a Southern dialect, while the word “southern” is the accent.



Simple enough, right? The world has many languages so it’s only reasonable that we have many accents. But did you ever stop to wonder why a German girl singing “I Will Always Love You” doesn’t sound any different (accent wise) from an american singing “I Will Always Love You”?  In the video from the link above, Laura, a little girl from Germany, appears to have an American accent while she sings. However, this is not the case. If you had talented singers from around the world singing the same American song, and you were unable to visually see them, it would probably be quite hard, to nearly impossible to figure out which voice was from where. This is all because of phonetics, and how singing causes two main things to occur: a change in our vocal cord’s air pressure, and the pace of our delivery.

A person’s accent is lost by the slower paced delivery of the song, which causes one’s accent to turn neutral. Accents, for the most part, disappear when singing. David Crystal, a linguist from Northern Ireland, explains that our intonations and rhythm of speech are removed while singing. A song’s melody causes the rises and falls of our voice to disappear (intonations) while the beat of the music causes the systematic arrangement of speech to disappear (rhythm). Furthermore, songs have accented syllables (no pun intended) that require the singer to elongate vowel sounds. This same neutralizing effect happens with air pressure as well. A singer’s whole quality of sound is altered by the expanding of enlarged air passages.


Despite recognizing that accents don’t usually come through in songs, some people still argue that singers are getting rid of their accent on purpose. Discourse & Communication researcher Andy Gibson, from Auckaland University of Technology in New Zealand, disagreed. He explained that neutralizing the accent simply comes more natural than anything else. In a study he conducted, singers with accents when speaking weren’t even aware that any change was occurring in their voice, but there were very few cases where vowels they sung matched the vowels they spoke.

So why is it, then, that little Laura appears to have points in the song that sound less like an American accent? We can assume this is similar to Gibson’s study. While his participants had very few moments that their vowel sounds while singing matched up with their vowel sounds while speaking, they still had instances where their accent snuck through. In fact, it’s actually harder for a singer to attempt to retain their accent while singing, though some still do this anyways.


Thinking about all of this makes me wonder about how kids differ from adults once again. We established in class that kids make all of the sounds in speech, regardless of their native language, which enables them to learn languages more easily than adults. Does that make it easier for kids like Laura to have their accents disappear when singing, even if they can’t actually speak the other language? In my mind, kids would be better at imitating the musical notes; therefore, able to neutralize their voices more effectively. Perhaps, though, this would only occur for those kids who were musically inclined.

Art of Ventriloquism

Jeff Dunham, do you know him? Doesn’t sound familiar? He sells out pretty much every arena he’s ever performed in; racked in $38,000,000 dollars on ticket sales alone in one year. No, he’s not a musician…He’s a ventriloquist; a person who is able to “throw his voice” so that it sounds like it’s coming from somewhere else, specifically from a dummy. Sounds simple enough, right? At least, in terms of what he does. But what’s really happening during a ventriloquist act is not just the normal ways of communication in every day life. One could say that, for people like Dunham, there’s a whole different type of speech generation involved with the language of a ventriloquist.

In a broad sense, there are three important components of speech that every human uses, no matter what their profession: respiration, phonation, and articulation. Respiration comes from our lungs by increasing their capacity. This decreases the air pressure, which causes us to breathe in. Phonation is when the energy produced from the air flow becomes audible. This is due to the different forms of cartilage in the larynx that rotate to cause vocal folds. Lastly, articulation occurs when vocal tracts near the larynx change in shape by making movement of the lips, tongue, or jaw.


Different Structures of the Vocal Tract 

So what’s unique to a ventriloquist? In class we discussed how we (as americans) tend to think that people speaking another language are talking really fast, despite English being one of the fastest languages spoken. This is because we don’t perceive there to be any gaps between their words. Although there aren’t any gaps in English either, we still feel like we hear the gaps due to knowing the speech segmentation of the English language, which allows us to decide where words and sounds begin and end. When watching a ventriloquist perform, a similar thing happens.

Similar to how we feel listening to someone speak in a different language!

Similar to how we feel listening to someone speak in a different language!

Since the ventriloquists’ illusion depends on their audience being fully drawn to the “voice” of the puppet, they must make sure to keep their mouths as still as possible. As we know, though, there are just certain letters that require the use of our lips. The trick is, ventriloquists create substitutions for letters “b”, “f”, “m”, “p”, “q”, “v”, and “w”. For instance, the letter “b” is substituted with the sound “geh”. This sound substitution is done quickly, which causes our brain and ears to automatically fill in the missing letter; the same way our brain and ears create gaps between words and sounds. A better example that was also discussed in class, is when someone coughs while the teacher is lecturing. The cough blocks out the sound of a particular letter in a word, but our brains are able to fill that letter in so that we think we heard it being pronounced.

We find people like Jeff Dunham to have entertaining talents, but now we know there’s a lot more to it than them keeping their mouths still. Knowing this now, it’d be interesting to watch a performance and focus on the ventriloquist to see if the substitutions can be recognized. I wonder if it would be harder to tell they aren’t saying the actual letters if the ventriloquist had a normal conversation where he/she used the substitutions, but allowed their mouths to move? Even if we can establish the substitutions, I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard at all to make our minds switch back to the illusion that continues to entertain us.

How do you know if a child has good language skills before they even understand language?

Language is arguably one of the most important cognitive abilities humans have. It is what allows us to communicate with one and other, convey emotions, and express emotions. That is why for cognitive psychology finding out what can impair a child’s ability to perform language skills is very important. The University of Chicago did a study to see if there are any indicators of future problems with learning language skills. First they looked at children from different economic statuses. In general, they found that economic status did not have an impact on future language capabilities. Although, they did find that how children learned language was different depending on their economic status. Then, they looked to see if they could predict language learning skills in infants based on the gestures they make. They videotaped children with their primary caregivers and were able to see that early gestures can be used to identify children with brain injuries that could lead to delay in language. The researchers also used what they saw to develop four hypotheses on language and learning development: early gestures can be a diagnostic for language delay, encouraging gestures can lead to children having a larger vocabulary when they start school, Diversified vocabulary use by caregivers can help children gain vocabulary and syntax, Specific word use can increase children’s understanding of numerical and special thinking. I think this article is interesting because it shows the importance of cognitive psychological study in the real world. It would make a huge difference in a child’s life if they can be identified as at risk of slow language learning before they can talk, this would allow them to get the help need immediately and not fall behind. Also, it would benefit any child if their parents understand the way to help them gain additional, more complex, language skills

“What language do you think in?”

I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela were the native language is Spanish, and I was lucky enough to attend a bilingual school where I learned English. Ever since I moved to the United States, about eight years ago, when people find out that I speak two languages, they ask which one is my native language, and although I learned both almost at the same time, I had always considered myself more fluent in Spanish; time has changed that. Living in the States has made me as native in English as I am in Spanish. The question that follows is: what language do you think in? To be completely honest, the answer to this question is almost as hard as Dr. Rettinger’s favorite question: Does the tree make a sound if it falls in the middle of the forest? The truth is, I do not know. For the most part I consider myself to think in English when I am in an English-speaking environment and vice versa, but there is always the exception to the rule like when I count in English, once I get to 20 I start counting in Spanish

So while we learned about language in our cognitive class, I thought this would be a great time to see if there had been any research done about bilingualism and which language people think in when they speak more than one language. I found an interesting article that talks about the function of the brain when people switch form one language to the next. While the different languages activated the same exact area of the brain, there was an increase in intensity for when the participants switched languages, and no difference when they switched tasks in the same language. Although the article isn’t exactly about how to detect which language I think in, it most definitely suggests that something does occur when switching language and that given that they activate the same area of the brain, it could be highly impossible to think in two languages at a time.

Interestingly enough, I also found an article that suggests that the way people think changes with the language they are thinking in, or the environment they are in. What I mean by this is that language can activate specific cultural frames and therefore change your personality to some extent. This was shown to be true with Hispanic people and Arabs. Maybe then, it makes sense that I think and congruently act a certain way when I’m in an English speaking environment, as well as a Spanish speaking one.

Overall, bilingualism has been proven to be more beneficial than detrimental, here is a fun video that summarizes a few of them:

Although I did not find much of an answer to my impossible question, I did find a lot of interesting studies about language, more specifically speaking more than one, and how it can affect us without it us even realizing it.

PSA: Even if you are not good at learning languages, explore the world, you will learn so much from it!

Busting Bilingualism

Anyone who knows me should know that I start salivating whenever I even hear the word “language.” Those who know me even better know that I speak 4 languages, some more fluently than others. Whenever I see articles that attest to the fact that those individuals who are talented enough to master more than one language, I can’t help but get a little excited because it makes me feel special. I mean, who wouldn’t? However, is there really a correlation between multilingualism and cognitive performance?

My interest in multilingualism was sparked when I watched this video by a not-too-famous YouTuber. Spoiler alert: she’s not actually speaking those languages, that’s what we in the industry call “gibberish.” So I got to thinking about how she must be cognitively advantaged if she can even feign knowledge of all of those languages. However, a later video of hers disproves this. So I did some research.

An experiment conducted by Simon and Wolf in 1963 put bilinguals and monolinguals to the test in cognitive performance. In their task, participants were presented with a color and a shape on one side of a screen. If the figure was red, they had to push a button on the right side of the keyboard. If it was blue, a button on the left was pressed. The experiment varied in congruent and non-congruent trials where sometimes the color and the side of the screen it was presented on were similar, and sometimes that was not the case. The experiment showed that both types of participants performed equally, disproving that cognitive function was superior in bilingual people. This task was performed with people of varying levels of multilingual proficiency. For example, one trial consisted of native English speakers, native English speakers who also spoke Spanish, and English-Spanish interpreters whose jobs require them to be fluent in multiple languages. All participants performed the same regardless of level of proficiency in multiple languages.

Furthermore, research has shown that the level of proficiency in basic lexical tasks is decreased across languages in bilingual participants. Time and attention are divided between the two languages, so the learner doesn’t go as in-depth into the language as monolingual speakers of the same language do. In a fluency test, participants were given a letter or category and one minute to name as many words as possible either beginning with the letter or in the category. At the end of the minute, bilingual participants showed a much lower total number of words said than their monolingual counterparts.

So the next time you think that learning a language will help you in the workplace, you need to weigh in on the good, the bad, and the ugly of being multilingual. Yes, you’ll be able to communicate with several different types of people, but does the benefit really outweigh the cognitive cost?