Don’t Know Your Malayalam from your Malay? Try Listening with Your Eyes

June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

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First, let me introduce you to The Great Language Game. Created by “data scientist” Lars Yencken, this online challenge presents you with a series of audio clips that you try to identify from the list of language names given below each one. The better you do, the further you go, and the lists get longer. It’s a little bit of easy. Of course that’s French and not Mandarin! It’s a little bit of impossible. That’s really the name of a language? And it’s a lot of fun.

Go ahead and give it a try. It doesn’t take long. I’ll wait for you.

I’m thinking I could get a higher score if I could see the people speaking. It would really be great if they were wearing their national dress (think Miss Universe pageant). OK, that’s a bit much, but it might help a little even if I could see just their mouths. Of course, being familiar with the languages at hand is the biggest factor. But it make sense that looking at the way people speak should help us distinguish one language from another. You don’t need to have a PhD to figure that out. Actually, you don’t even have to be in preschool.

Kids See the Darndest Things

Janet Werker, director of the University of British Columbia’s Infant Studies Centre, has long been studying babies’ abilities to recognize different languages. Her research shows that infants as young as seven months old can hear the difference between languages by listening to grammar patterns. Werker was also part of a team, led by one of her students, Whitney Weikum, showing that even-younger babies can see the difference.

The group of researchers showed four-month-olds—from English-speaking households—silent videos of bilingual speakers using English or French or switching between the two. The babies were more interested and watched the videos longer when the speakers alternated languages.

When they tested six-month-old infants, some from monolingual homes and some from English-and-French-speaking homes, the results were the same. But when they showed the videos to eight-month-old babies, only the ones from bilingual homes continued to be able to distinguish the languages.

According to the researchers, this suggests that older “monolingual” babies lose their sensitivity to visual cues in language recognition because they no longer need them. “Bilingual” children, on the other hand, keep their ability longer, because they still need it as they learn two languages.

So if we lose that skill with age, how can those of us getting along in years work on regaining it? Welcome the lip-reading computer.

And Computers See Even More

If I had a computer that could read lips, I’d just sit back and watch it in awe. But five years ago a team of scientists at the University of East Anglia’s School of Computing Sciences couldn’t leave well-enough alone and gave their lip-reading computer the ability to recognize languages. Stephen Cox, one of the team’s leaders, says that their work is “the first scientific confirmation of something we already intuitively suspected—that when people speak different languages, they use different mouth shapes in different sequences.”

The group, using “statistical modeling,” studied the mouth movements of 23 bilingual and trilingual speakers. The result is a technology that can distinguish between a range of languages—from the similar to the widely different—including English, French, German, Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Polish, and Russian.

So it seems that with practice, and a little technological help, we should be able to see the difference between spoken languages even if we can’t hear them. Why, we might get to the point where our looking-without-listening skills could rival our ability to listen with our eyes closed.

But We Don’t Need Our Eyes to Hear, Right?

Well, maybe it’s time to revisit The Great Language Game for a reminder of how imprecise our listening skills can be. Or if that isn’t sufficiently humbling, take a look at the following video on the “McGurk Effect.” Also called the “McGurk Illusion,” the phenomenon was discovered by accident as Harry McGurk and his lab assistant, John MacDonald, both of the University of Surrey, were studying how infants develop their perception of speech.

It’s bad enough when you need help to identify languages, but simple, basic letter sounds? I give up.

(Whitney Weikum, et al., “Babies Able to Tell through Visual Cues when Speakers Switch Languages,” ScienceDaily, May 25, 2007; “Lip-Reading Computers Can Detect Different Languages,” University of East Anglia, April 22, 2009;”The McGurk Effect: Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices,” Haskins Laboratories)

[photo: “Hear No Evil,” by McBeths Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

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If You Could Talk to the Animals . . . You’d Know They Have Accents, Too

February 11, 2014 § 4 Comments

3256530575_3b4016287d_nLooks like my See ‘n Say needs a regional update.

When a woman from Nevada asked the folks at How to Do Everything, “How would a person moo in a British accent?” the hosts of the podcast looked to none other than Sir Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek and X-Men fame). He turned out to be a good choice, as discerning between cattle accents seems to be one of his areas of expertise. “In England,” he says, “we’re dominated by class, by social status, and by location.” And, according to Stewart, it’s the same for cows, too.

But while Stewart’s imitations of cows from West Oxfordshire, cows from Yorkshire, Cockney cows, urban cows, and well-bred cows were done with a mock earnestness, animal accents is a legitimate field of study. And there are no shortage of specialists—particularly in Great Britain—who take animal accents very seriously. Seriously indeed:

Goats say . . .

[Researchers] found that a goats’ “accent” changed as they grew older and moved in different groups, disproving claims that their voices were entirely genetic.

The team, from Queen Mary University of London, said their findings are the first to suggest that most mammals can develop an accent from their surroundings.

The findings have caused great excitement in the science community amid suggestions that “if goats can do it, maybe all mammals accents can be affected by their surroundings.”

(“Goats ‘Can Develop Their Own Accents,’” The Telegraph, February 16, 2012)

Dogs say . . .

The woof guide found Scouse and Scottish pets have the most distinctive growl—but there were differences in tone and pitch across the country.

Tracey Gudgeon, of the Canine Behaviour Centre in Cumbria, said: “It seems dogs are more able to imitate stronger, more distinctive accents than softer ones. It’s one of the ways they bond with their owner.” Idea for the research came with today’s re-release of 1955 Disney classic Lady and The Tramp on a special edition DVD.

The study even found some dogs have “posh” accents—just like Lady in the animated film. A delighted Disney spokesman said: ‘It seems we were right all along.”

(“Exclusive: Experts Say Dogs Growl with Regional Accents,” Mirror, February 13, 2006)

Cows say . . .

Cows have regional accents like humans, language specialists have suggested.

They decided to examine the issue after dairy farmers noticed their cows had slightly different moos, depending on which herd they came from.

Farmer Lloyd Green, from Glastonbury, said: “I spend a lot of time with my ones and they definitely moo with a Somerset drawl.

“I’ve spoken to the other farmers in the West Country group and they have noticed a similar development in their own herds.”

(“Cows Also ‘Have Regional Accents,'” BBC News, August 23, 2006)

Apes say . . .

Gibbons have regional accents, a new study suggests. While not a sexy Southern drawl, these accents can help scientists identify the species of gibbon singing and where they are from.

“Each gibbon has its own variable song but, much like people, there is a regional similarity between gibbons within the same location,” lead researcher Van Ngoc Thinh, from the Primate Genetics Laboratory at the German Primate Center, said in a statement.

(Jennifer Welsh, “Singing in the Rain Forest: Gibbons Have Accents,” LiveScience, February 7, 2011)

Bats say . . .

Researcher Brad Law of the Forest Science Center found that bats living in the forests along the east coast of the state of New South Wales had different calls.

He said scientists had long suspected bats had distinctive regional calls—as studies have shown with some other animals—but this was the first time it had been proven in the field.

(“Australian Scientists Find Bats Have Regional Accents,” Reuters, September 13, 2010)

Whales say . . .

Dalhousie Ph.D. student Shane Gero has recently returned from a seven-week visit to Dominica. He has been traveling to the Caribbean island since 2005 to study families of sperm whales, usually spending two to four months of each year working on the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. One of the goals of this project is to record and compare whale calls over time, examining the various phrases and dialects of sperm whale communities.

When they dive together, sperm whales make patterns of clicks to each other known as “codas.” Recent findings suggest that not only do different codas mean different things, but that whales can also tell which member of their community is speaking based on the sound properties of the codas. Just as we can tell our friends apart by the sounds of their voices and the way they pronounce their words, different sperm whales make the same pattern of clicks, but with different accents.

(“Whales Have Accents and Regional Dialects: Biologists Interpret the Language of Sperm Whales,” May 12, 2011)

Dolphins say . . .

Dolphins on the east and west coasts of Scotland have different “accents.”

White-beaked dolphins use a complex system of tail slaps, whistles and clicks which were believed to be common among the species. But expert Olivia Harries said: “They use different clicks on the east coast than those on the west coast.”

(“Study Reveals Dolphins on Scotland’s East and West Coasts Have Different ‘Accents,'” Daily Record, November 9, 2013)

Birds say . . .

The [yellowhammer’s] song differs in terms of pitch and tone, especially in the final part, depending on where an individual bird is found. Birds can also add in various “phrases” to their song, according to their dialect.

Experts believe that dialects can be so thick they may hinder the chances of birds breeding with partners from other areas.

(Jasper Copping, “Britain’s Birds Boast a Colourful Array of Regional Accents,” The Telegraph, May 19, 2013)

City Birds say . . .

A group of scientists from Aberystwyth University studying the great tit’s dulcet tones have discovered that the birds sing their songs at a higher pitch in built-up areas to help them travel further. . . .

Researchers from the West Wales university, working alongside colleagues in Copenhagen, have found that it is the buildings that are changing the way birds sing in cities. . . .

“Our cities are packed with reflective surfaces, open spaces and narrow channels, which you just don’t get in woodland,” said researcher Emily Mockford. . . . “The higher notes mean the echoes disappear faster and the next note is clearer.”

(“Urban Birds Find Their Voice with a New Kind of Twitter,” Wales Online, December 13, 2011)

and Ducks say . . .

“Cockney” ducks from London make a rougher sound, not unlike their human counterparts, so their fellow quackers can hear them above the city’s hubbub. But their Cornish cousins communicate with a softer, more relaxed sound, the team from Middlesex University found.

(“Ducks ‘Quack in Regional Accents,’” BBC News, June 4, 2004)

So, what are the practical ramifications of all these findings? I’m not quite sure, but I have come up with one thing: Whenever you’re faced with that crucial question of our time, “What does the fox say?” you should reply, “That depends on where the fox is from.”

[photo: “See ‘N Say,” by Chris Murphy, used under a Creative Commons license]

Do You Hear What They Hear? Babies Are Listening Bilingually Even before They Can Speak

October 18, 2013 § 8 Comments

I remember having a conversation with an American raising his children in Taiwan. The father was fluent in Mandarin, and he’d started teaching that language to his son at a young age. He told me that it hadn’t worked for him and that he’d read that parents who speak more than one language to their small children only confuse them, as they aren’t able to tell one language from another.

It seemed like sound reasoning to me.

42052685_df923ad167So it surprised me to see new research showing that infants are better at becoming bilingual than I’d thought. As it turns out, by the age of seven months, babies can distinguish between languages by recognizing their different grammar structures.

The study, published in Nature Communications, focused on languages with opposite grammar patterns—such as English, which most often has the verb before the object, and Turkish, which follows the object-then-verb arrangement. Infants in bilingual environments pick up on these patterns and can distinguish between the languages, by listening to differences in pitch, duration, and word frequency.

Janet F. Werker, of the University of British Columbia, is co-author of the study, along with Judit Gervain, of the Université Paris Descartes. Werker reassures parents in bilingual households. “If you speak two languages at home, don’t be afraid, it’s not a zero-sum game,” she says. “Your baby is very equipped to keep these languages separate and they do so in remarkable ways.”

Mental Cartography

Werker and Gervain’s research is one more step forward in what we know about infants and language learning. In 2001, Patricia Kuhl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Mind, Brain, and Learning, told the Smithsonian magazine that six-to-eight-month olds can already distinguish between different vowel and consonant sounds in the languages they hear everyday and in languages “foreign” to them. But by their first birthday, they can no longer differentiate between sounds that are not part of a language that they’ve been exposed to. This is because they have developed a focus on familiar sounds, while “tuning out” unfamiliar ones. Then, later on in life, when the familiar competes against the unfamiliar, say, when learning a new language, the old sounds will usually win out. The result is a non-native accent.

To register what sounds infants can differentiate, Kuhl used a “head-turn” study (similar to that used by Werker and Gervain). In one example, two-thirds of both American and Japanese six-month olds could hear the difference between “la” and “ra.” But by the one-year mark, 80% of American children responded to the difference, while only 59% of the Japanese children did. Since the latter rate is only 9 percentage points above chance, this showed that the Japanese children had joined their parents in no longer being able to distinguish between the two sounds.

According to Kuhl,

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. You don’t think about it, like walking. [Familiar sounds] become more and more embedded into the map, until eventually they are almost ineradicable.

This accent map gets harder and harder to change as time goes by. On the other hand, if a child is exposed to multiple languages early enough—while the map is being drawn—the child can create more than one map at once.

Kuhl also has found (as shown in the TED Talk below) that if this exposure to languages is to have an effect on an infant, it must come from a live person. Listening to audio, even with an accompanying video of the speaker, does no good.

It’s Never Too Early to Learn

According to DNAinfo New York, some parents in the Big Apple are even learning a new language themselves in order to make sure that exposure to multiple languages happens for their children at an early age.

Take, for instance, Rhonda Ross, of Harlem, who went to a boarding school in a French-speaking area of Switzerland when she was a student. Later, when her son, Raif, turned one, she began speaking to him only in French. “I started with a French babysitter,” she said, “but a friend convinced me I would have to speak French to my son myself if I really wanted him to be fluent.”

Not being fluent herself, that means that Ross has to keep learning as she teaches her son. But she feels that the effort is worth it. In fact, she is so pleased with the outcome, that she’s introduced Raif to Mandarin and Spanish, as well.

Linguist Jennifer Wilkin, of Brooklyn, is another advocate of early bilingual education. In 2001, she founded Science, Language & Arts, where parents and children can learn French and Mandarin. “There is certainly a trend among New Yorkers to give a language to their children,” said Wiklin, who “knows several parents who are learning, and speaking, Spanish, Japanese, French and German to their children.”

While Wilkin’s school has students from preschool through fifth grade, Lyndsey St. John started Baby French in a Brooklyn ice-cream parlor and candy shop named The Candy Rush. The class caters to children who haven’t even learned to talk yet. “It’s really good to start those [language] pathways forming at a very early age,” said Wilkins. “Anywhere from 8 months to 3 years is when children are really sponges. They’re picking up everything.”

(Judit Gervain and Janet F. Werker, “Prosody Cues Word Order in 7-Month-Old Bilingual Infants,” Nature Communications, February 14, 2013; “Bilingual Babies Know Their Grammar by Seven Months,” The University of British Columbia Public Affairs, February 14, 2013; Edwin Kiester, Jr., “Accents Are Forever,” Smithsonian, January 2001; Julie Norwell, “New York Parents Learn Foreign Languages to Help Kids Become Fluent,” DNAinfo New York, March 6, 2013; “Even before They Utter First Words, Brooklyn Babies Take French Lessons,” DNAinfo New York, August 22, 2012)

[photo: “Mommy Tells a Story,” by Dan LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license]

 

Bilingualism for Babies and Grandparents

April 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here’s some background information for my post “Bilingual Brain Boost.” A couple related articles at The Hot Word  point to research on how bilingualism affects infant intelligence and how knowing two languages may delay the onset of dementia:

[photo: “Grammy & Natalie,” by donireewalker, used under a Creative Commons license]

Attention Monoglots

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What about someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. And someone who speaks one language? American. (It’s an old joke, but when I was teaching ESL, my students thought it was funny.) There’s even a name for a person who can speak more than 10 languages. It’s hyperpolyglot. But hyperpolyglotism is not in everyone’s future. Michael Erard, author of Babel No More: The Search for the Worlds’ Most Extraordinary Language Learners, writes, “Hyperpolyglots are not born, and they are not made, but they are born to be made.” Do you have what it takes? Hyperpolyglots tend to be male and left handed and tend to have high IQs . . . and immune disorders. Not sure why.

(“How Do You Learn to Speak More Than 12 Languages,” The Hot Word, January 9, 2012)

Even though she doesn’t fit the mold (being a girl), ten-year-old Sonia Yang last year won a regional competition in England with her ability to speak 10 languages, including Chinese, Taiwanese, English, and Lugandan (spoken in Uganda). “It gets easier with each language you try out,” said Yang, who prepared for the qualifying rounds of the competition by picking up Kazakh and Portuguese.

(Paul Byrne, “10-Year-Old Schoolgirl Can Speak 10 Languages—and Crowned One of Country’s Top Linguists,” Mirror Online, October 19, 2011)

Update: Just saw an essay by Michael Erard in The New York Times  in which he says that Americans may not be as far behind the rest of the world as we often think. He figures that more US citizens are bilingual than is commonly reported and then cites an estimate that “80 percent of people on the planet speak 1.69 languages—not high enough to conclude that the average person is bilingual.”

(Michael Erard, “Are We Really Monlolingual?,” The New York Times, January 14, 2012)

[photo: “English sign” by andreasmarx, used under a Creative Commons license]

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