Are some nations louder? On voicing patterns and foreign accents

Remember that peaceful sunny afternoon, your kayak sliding away with a slow river current, and you, balancing the paddle in your hands, watching the world go past, listening to birds twittering in the bushes, trees humming in a light warm breeze, water swirling along the river banks, bubbling under half immersed rocks…. And then: Ja, ich hab dir gesagt, gib mir noch ein Bier, schneller!!! Ahaha!!! Hans, guck mal wie schoen ist es hier! Mach mir eine Foto!!!

Happy-go-lucky people, having good fun wherever they go. Oh yes, they know how to party. But why are they so loud!?

Another example. When I lived in Italy, I now and then talked to my mom on the phone when in company of my friends. At some point my mom had to ask: Is there a fight going on? Why are they shouting so much? Well, my friends were just talking, having a laugh, they spoke at their usual volume of speech. So are some nations louder than other? And what reason lies behind it – is it predetermined culturally or phonologically?

Shouting inside exercise

This weekend I had a chance to participate in a course on voice emission and vocal hygiene. Some basic things like breathing, voicing, articulating and resonating were discussed. The most interesting for me was the part on natural resonators – the skull and its bones and the rib cage and abdominal areas are natural resonators of the body, and they are responsible for the amplification of the sound and its deeper frequencies. We can make the sound louder without straining our vocal cords. For instance, we practiced shouting inside – you shout and draw the sound back to your throat in waves, it makes the sound much stronger with no effort. So maybe that is why some nations speak at a higher volume – they use resonators to a greater extent. Have you ever noticed whether you talk louder in one language than in another?

Why some of us can never get rid of a foreign accent?

Another interesting issue is articulation. We don’t have a separate vocal apparatus for each language we speak. A newborn baby is predisposed to learn any voicing patterns, be it click consonants of some African languages, nasal vowels of Polish, German umlauted vowels and so on. This flexibility of vocal cords disappears after first years, that is why so many late bilinguals will never sound like natives. de Bot in his model of bilingual speech (A bilingual production model: Levelt’s ‘Speaking’ model adapted, 1992) suggests that although there are separate formulators for each language, which means that different procedures are applied to the grammatical and phonological encoding of L1 and L2 speech, there is only one articulator (that converts the speech plan into speech), which makes use of one set of sounds and pitch patterns, only some of which are language specific. It explains possible occurrence of foreign accent in speakers.

It’s time for an example. The most frequent vowel in English is the vowel called ‘schwa’. It sounds like nothing really. It is the sound of any vowel which is not stressed in a word, e.g. tomorrow – you hear ‘o’ distinctly, but the first syllable is something like /tyhm/. Or potato – you distinctly pronounce ‘a’ but not ‘o’, it becomes /pyhteito/, another one: attend – sounds like /yhtend/. In Polish or Italian, although only one syllable in a word is stressed, you are supposed to voice every vowel, so all vowels are easily audible. After a few months in the States I noticed that I became sloppy in Polish and didn’t bother to voice all vowels, which made my speech hardly understandable. It reminds me of that scene in some Polish movie in which an airport hostess, before making an announcement in English, puts a piece of potato in her mouth to give herself natural blurry English articulation.

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