Monday, 29 April 2013

Switching languages = switching personalities?

Multilinguals often report feeling different depending on which language they are speaking.  Learning to operate in a second or foreign language seems to have the ability to affect the behaviour of the individual, suggesting that learning a new language is not just about learning words and grammar, but also about learning to behave in a completely new way.

Jean-Marc Dewaele and Seiji Nakano were keen to explore this idea. They questioned 106 multilingual students from Birkbeck College in London, who spoke a total of 56 different languages between them.  Dewaele and Nakano asked the participants to complete an online questionnaire comprising five questions about each of the different languages that they spoke:

1)    How logical do you feel in this language?
2)    How serious do you feel in this language/
3)    How emotional do you feel in this language?
4)    How fake (not yourself) do you feel in this language?
5)    How different do you feel in this language?

The participants were asked to respond on a scale of 1 = feel the same, to 5 = feel very different (if answering question number 5 for example).  These closed questions were followed up with more open questions building on their responses.

Overall, the participants reported feeling significantly less logical, less emotional and marginally less serious in languages that they had acquired later in life, whilst also feeling significantly more fake and different in these languages.  Results for questions 4 and 5 were interesting as they seemed to suggest that participants felt the greatest difference and ‘fakeness’ when moving between their first (L1) and second (L2) languages.  Although they felt just as different speaking L3 and L4 as they did speaking L2, the shift in feeling was no greater than moving from L1 to L2.  The researchers speculated that this may be due to the fact that L3 and L4 are used more infrequently and are not mastered well enough to experience such a difference when switching to them. 

It was interesting to see that most participants reported feeling more authentic, more logical, more emotional and more serious in languages that they had acquired earlier in life compared to those acquired later.  It seems that maybe multi-linguals feel more restricted in these later languages.  These findings correspond to a well-known phenomenon in acquiring a second language, which suggests that those learning and using a L2 are unable to vary their speech styles  between formal and informal as well as they are able to in their L1.  In fact, speakers tend to be ‘stuck’ in the middle of the formal-informal continuum in their L2, whilst they can function over its whole range in their L1.

The multilinguals in Dewaele and Nakano’s study also reported feeling more colourful, rich, poetic and emotional if they switched to using a language which they perceived to be more colourful, rich, poetic and emotional.  For example, one participant observed:

Speaking in my L1 is like being in my own skin – a completely natural and comfortable feeling.  Using my L2 is perhaps like wearing gorgeous clothes and evening make-up – a not completely natural state of affairs but one which allows me to shine and appear ‘beautiful’.

Many of the participants who reported feeling like this tended to also report a change in context when switching languages and it could be this change in context and environment which causes a change in feeling, rather than the actual switch in language itself.  In a community of bilinguals who often switch between their two languages these feelings of difference would be minimal as the context remains unchanged.   

In fact, this area appears to be very complex and the only things Dewaele and Nakano were able to establish for certain is that multi-linguals often feel different when switching between languages and that how they feel about operating in their different languages does depend on the age that the language was acquired.  However, they concluded that a lot of this difference remains unexplained and that this is possibly due to the fact that language is so bound up with various contextual and environmental factors.
Dewaele, Jean-Marc and Nakano, Seiji (2013) Multilinguals’ perceptions of feeling different when switching languages. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 34: 107-120.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

I don't know


What does I don't know mean?
The most frequent three-word phrase in both British and American spoken English turns out to be I don’t know, according to corpus research.

Lynn E Grant’s work reveals why we use this little phrase so often.  It would be reasonable to expect it to indicate that the speaker can’t give the information they’ve been asked for, as in example (1) in the box. In fact, though, Grant’s analyses of the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC) and the New Zealand Wellington Corpus (WSC) finds that we use I don’t know more often as an ‘affective device’ to convey our feelings or as an ‘epistemic’ device to show how confident we are about the truth of what we are saying.

Example (2) shows its use as an affective device. Here I don’t know softens disagreement. It can also soften an assessment, as in (3). Grant points out that in both cases the phrase is a politeness marker, toning down a remark that could be seen as face threatening.

(1) speaker A:           how much is the subscription
     speaker B:           I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Mary

(2) speaker A:           you don’t really need a big bathroom do you
     speaker B:           oh I dunno, if you see a big bathroom it’s nice

(3) speaker A:           oh well maybe I could be more lenient
     speaker B:           oh doesn’t matter not for this year anyway                                      tut the balls are already in motion                            
     speaker A:           tut yeah I don’t know                                                                    

In (4) I don’t know is an epistemic device, acting as a polite hedge to avoid commitment.

(4) speaker A:           so wha – what Andy’s done, and what other                                     people have done have pitted, picked out a few                               great examples, but I would say that erm
                              <pause> the majority are quite reasonable                                     comments, if, if perhaps a little bit simple at                                   times, I don't know 

It can also downplay a compliment, as in (5). As Grant explains, English speakers can feel uncomfortable when they receive a compliment, and a common response is I don’t know.

(5) speaker A:           I mean you’ll find something I mean I I can’t                                    imagine YOU being unemployed it just won't                                    happen
     speaker B:           well I don’t know it’s going to happen in two                                  weeks time but I'll be calling it a holiday
     speaker A:           yeah but not yes well give yourself a holiday                                    for a month

The shortened form I dunno or simply dunno has the same pragmatic functions, though overall speakers mainly use it as a polite hedge, to show uncertainty.

Grant uncovers some interesting differences between speakers of New Zealand English and speakers of British English. New Zealanders use I don’t know more often to avoid disagreement and to avoid committing themselves to their answers. And although in both the British English corpus and the New Zealand corpus I don’t know often occurs with a discourse marker (especially oh, I mean, you know and well), for New Zealanders the discourse marker is more likely to be oh, whereas for British English speakers it is more likely to be well. The reasons remain a mystery.

Grant concludes that there are implications here for language learning and language teaching. Language learners use I don’t know less often than native speakers do, and when they do use the phrase, it is not for the same functions. Even advanced learners of English, she maintains, need to be specifically taught how we use chunks like I don’t know in spoken English, since the meanings they create in discourse are fundamental to successful human interaction.
Grant, Lynn E. (2010). A corpus comparison of the use of I don’t know by British and New Zealand speakers. Journal of Pragmatics 42: 2282-2296.

doi: 10.1016/j.pragma.2010.01.004

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Monday, 22 April 2013

Jenny Cheshire Lecture in Sociolinguistics 2013

Professor Jennifer Coates: "The discursive production of everyday heterosexualities"

Friday 7th June 2013, 6.30pm, Arts Two Lecture Theatre, Arts Two Building, Mile End Campus, Queen Mary, University of London.

For more details and to book a free place at this event click here.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Children acquiring verbs and gestures

do children use gestures before words to convey actions?

Research has shown that young children use gesture to communicate before they produce their first words. Typically, children from around the age of 10 months use gestures such as pointing to refer to objects before they have acquired the words for those objects. Once a child has pointed to an object (e.g. a dog) it is likely that the child will learn the word for that object (“dog”) within the next few months, either because using gestures provides the child with the opportunity to practice referring to objects before they are verbally able to do so, or because the child is likely to receive verbal input at the time of pointing (e.g. an adult says ‘yes, it’s a dog’), exposing the child to the word “dog” just when the child sees and is thinking about a dog. Gestures, then, appear to pave the way for children’s first nouns.

Young children also use what is known as iconic gestures and these are gestures that either convey actions, such as flapping arms to represent a bird flying, or to convey attributes associated with objects, such as holding cupped hands together to depict the roundness of a ball. Researchers Şeyda Özçalişkan, Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow were interested in finding out whether these types of gestures pave the way for children’s early verbs in the same way that pointing gestures pave the way for children’s early nouns.

They videotaped 40 North American children (22 girls, 18 boys) at home with their parents every 4 months from age 14 to 34 months and collected around 540 minutes of observation in total for each individual child. The children’s families came from a range of backgrounds in terms of income and ethnicity but all the children were being raised as monolingual English. The researchers transcribed all the communicative words and gestures that the children produced. Given the researchers’ interest on actions and verbs, they analysed only the children’s use of iconic gestures to depict actions.

They found that iconic gestures do not serve the same function as, for example, pointing gestures do for nouns. Unlike pointing gestures, which precede and predict children’s first nouns, the results of this study showed that children do not produce iconic gestures until around 6 months later than they produced their first verbs. Instead, the children relied almost exclusively on speech to convey their early action meanings. On average, the children produced their first spoken verb at around the age of 18 months but they did not produce their first iconic gesture until the age of around 25 months.

The researchers suggest four possible reasons why children produce so few iconic gestures in their early development. The first is that the gestures may be physically difficult to produce. However, as they point out themselves, some iconic gestures only involve moving a finger across space - to indicate something moving downwards for example – yet even these simple movements do not occur much before the age of 26 months. Secondly, perhaps the frequency of iconic gestures in parental input is low so that children are not often exposed to models of iconic gestures. Thirdly, the researchers suggest that iconic gestures are likely to impose a greater cognitive load than pointing gestures because there are conceptual difficulties in producing the gesture itself; in other words, children have to work out an action (gesture) which is representative of the action they want to convey, for example the action of hopping two fingers up and down to represent a rabbit hopping. Finally, iconic gestures may be more difficult for children to acquire because actions (and thus verbs) are associated with concepts rather than objects. Verbs express relations between things, and relational concepts are generally learned later than object concepts.

An interesting area for future development that the researchers identify would be to manipulate the input of iconic gestures to determine whether early exposure to iconic gestures has an impact on children’s production of iconic gestures and whether those gestures in turn play a role in children’s later acquisition of verbs. We await the results of such a study with interest.
Özçalişkan, Ş., Gentner, D. and Goldin-Meadow, S. (2013). Do iconic gestures pave the way for children’s early verbs? Applied Psycholinguistics, 1-20.

doi: 10.1017/S0142716412000720

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Tuesday, 9 April 2013


tut tut? tsk tsk?

We’re probably all used to hearing alveolar or dental clicks, when the tip of the tongue briefly meets the ridge just behind the top teeth. Usually this sound is thought to express irritation or disapproval, or sometimes sympathy. We may also be familiar with an ‘air kiss’ or what phoneticians term a bilabial click – when someone makes a clicking sound by bringing their lips together for a moment.  As Melissa Wright points out, though, the idea that clicks express emotions is based on anecdote and intuition rather than on analyses of naturally-occurring talk. She performed the first systematic study of clicks in everyday English talk-in-interaction, finding, for the first time, a relationship between clicks and the way that we organize talk in spoken English.

Wright analysed 18 hours of naturally-occurring telephone conversations in Britain and America. She found 86 bilabial and alveolar/dental clicks in these conversations, used by 20 different speakers: 13 men and 7 women.  The fact that 20 different speakers of different ages and from different social backgrounds all used clicks suggests that clicks are not simply idiosyncratic features of one person’s speech.

In fact, Wright found recurrent patterns in the way that all twenty speakers used clicks. All the clicks occurred between the end of one conversational sequence and the beginning of another. There is an example in the box, where lines 1-5 show the final part of a longer sequence where Norman was telling Lesley about his use of a dialysis machine. He closes down this sequence with an assessment, in line 6, which Lesley accepts, in line 7. She then offers a final closing token, hm, in line 9, followed by a bilabial click (the ‘air kiss’ sound, represented here by the symbol).  After the click she begins a new sequence (lines 9-12) about an arrangement between Norman and her son, Gordon.

1. Norman:    you leave Wincanton about three o’clock
2.                 and get back about two in the morning
3. Lesley:       hhhh oh [:
4. Norman:                 [and work full time on top of that
5. Lesley:       oh [dear
6. Norman:         [but it’s a lot easier no:w hh huh
7. Lesley:       yes I’m sure
8. Lesley:       hm: [] .hh okay well I’ll tell Gordon
10.                and uhm (0.3) I’m sure-and he was
11.                going to give you a ring anyway .hh
12.                before Sunday
13. Norman:   right you are (.) yes

All 81 clicks functioned alongside other phonetic factors that typically occur between sequences of talk. One such factor is a change in pitch: speakers produced the section of speech before the click with a low pitch typical of closing sequences of talk, and they then uttered the section of talk after the click with a higher pitch. After the clicks, the new sequences were often marked with words such as anyway, right or, as in Lesley’s case, okay well, all of which can demonstrate that the following talk will be a shift from what came before. The interlocutors showed that the click-initiated shifts in sequence were appropriately placed, as they consistently treated them as unproblematic in the interaction: thus in our example Norman’s right you are in his immediately subsequent turn, in line 13, indicates his acceptance of the topic shift.

Wright’s interactional and phonetic analysis, then, demonstrates that displaying emotion is not the only function that clicks have in talk. They are also a neglected phonetic resource that speakers of English can draw on to organize their talk, functioning alongside other linguistic features to manage the sequential unfurling of spoken interaction.
Melissa Wright (2011) On clicks in English talk-in-interaction. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 41/2: 207-229.
doi. 10.1017/S0025100311000144

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Language and gender on the internet

Millions of people around the world take part in large-scale group discussions on the internet. These discussions have been likened to very large-scale  conversations. We might wonder, therefore, whether the same kinds of gender differences exist in computer-mediated discussions as have been noted in face-to-face discussions.

Susan Herring set out to investigate this question by analysing four public computer-mediated discourse samples from three academic discussion lists. In some of the online discussions there were more male than female participants, while in others there were more female participants.  She found that in the male-predominant samples the discussion took place over more days, contained longer messages on a single theme, and was more argumentative in style. This behaviour can be thought of as paralleling what researchers have found in previous studies on face-to-face communication, where male speakers prefer a one-at-a-time pattern of speaking with one person holding the floor at any one time, often speaking as an expert. In contrast, in face-to-face communication female speakers prefer a collaborative floor with overlapping speech and with utterances often jointly produced by all participants in the conversation. In a somewhat similar way, and as expected, in Herring’s online samples the female-dominant discussions contained shorter posts, multiple themes and there was more agreement than disagreement. However, female contributors also showed some more hierarchical patterns of behaviour, mainly in the all-female discussions. In both female-predominant and male-predominant discussions, a small number of active individuals, both women and men, tended to dominate, initiating topics, posting the most messages and receiving the most responses.

Herring points out that we might expect to find a ‘one-at-a-time floor’ in computer-mediated discussions. Messages have to appear in a chronological order and although we can interpret posting a message as taking a turn in a conversation it is not possible to interrupt a post, as we can a turn in speech. But the technology does not explain why the women in this study took shorter turns overall, nor why there tended to be multiple themes to their discussions and more agreement than disagreement. These findings, she maintains, call for an explanation in terms of social rather than technological factors. On the other hand, the fact that in same gender discussions women as well as men dominate in participation and response rates calls for an explanation in terms of power rather than gender.

Herring concludes that men and women are socialised to manage conversational interaction differently, with men conventionally assigned greater power and privilege in public floors, but with certain powerful floor management practices available for use by empowered individuals of either gender. This interpretation can be extended to face-to-face communication, too: the different turn-taking styles that have been attributed to men (who are thought to prefer a one-at-a-time style) and to women (who seem to prefer a collaborative style) may be inherently power-based. These styles then map onto gender in ways that associate more powerful discourse management strategies with men rather than women.

Herring, S.C. (2010) Who’s got the floor in computer-mediated conversation? Edelsky’s gender patterns revisited. Language@Internet, 7, article 8. (urn:nbn:de:0009-7-28579)

accessed March 29 2013

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire