Category Archives: Bilingual modes of speaking

Bilingual modes of speaking – we present here such phenomena of bilingual performance like: code-switching, interference, accommodation strategy, prosodic features

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.

Getting emotional – interference in bilinguals

A Zen teacher would say that we need to get rid of emotions, that they are an unwelcome baggage that hinders us on our pathway to enlightenment. Driven by emotions we tend to commit smaller and bigger blunders, I bet any of us could recall a few painful memories that better remain unmentioned.

How do emotions affect bilingual speech?

Emotions influence our actions and our speech, mostly because we first speak then think. Hence the true maxim: Speech is silver, silence is golden. Language performance, being a linear time-sensitive process, is hard to control, and we may end up saying something we would rather hold back. For bilinguals it may be the case of using wrong language – such cases are called interference and are defined by Grosjean as: “the involuntary influence of one language on the other” (Life with two languages: an introduction to bilingualism, 1982), which may be caused by situational and emotional factors such as stress, fatigue, last language spoken, etc.

Gestures and exclamations

Emotional interjections and exclamations are especially susceptible to interference. After almost a year in Italy, even when I talked to a Polish person I couldn’t help but react spontaneously with Italian phrases such as ‘ma dai!?’ for disbelief, ‘boh…’ for feeling undecided or ‘ahia!!!’ when hurt. Not to mention the very expressive style of Italian gesticulation, so familiar to anyone who has ever watched “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos”.

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When does interference occur?

Interference in bilinguals may occur at various levels of language performance, such as phonology, causing an agitated Spanish-English bilingual to shout ‘Be careful!’ with a heavily rolled alveolar /R/; or syntax: ‘To nie robi sensu!’ – a very ungrammatical form in Polish, but in all likelihood an effect of interference from English ‘It doesn’t make sense!’ and German ‘Das macht kein Sinn!’

Lexical interference can easily lead to misunderstanding, especially when you talk to monolinguals. After spending a few months in the States I used to insert ‘whatever’ at the end of almost every utterance. Having returned back home, I tried to overcome it, which I found extremely hard, as there is no such expression in Polish. That led me to producing such forms in Polish as ‘cokolwiek’, ‘coś tam’, and after applying some effort I managed to change it to ‘nieważne’, which could be probably the closest counterpart of ‘whatever’, although it still does not cater for all its meanings and uses. Also, my American friend with whom I spent three months in Italy has become painfully aware of lack of such expression in Italian, so we ended up inventing our very own word ‘cosamai’, which continued to baffle our Italian friends.

Last but not least -bad language

Talking about expressing our emotions, especially the negative ones, we should not forget about bad language. I guess all of you would have something to say in that matter. Even monolinguals use foreign language swear words, often not being aware of their actual force of expression, which may lead to even more stressful situations in multicultural groups of people. Oddly though, swear words tend to be one and only element of a foreign language that are acquired with seemingly no effort at all, and they stick the longest, too…

London in November – Bilingual communities in the city

London in November – still blessed with warm weather and proud of its charming parks with vast lawns of dark green grass covered in heaps of golden leaves. Winter season is fast approaching with festive decorations in the streets, Christmas traditional fairs and ice-skating rinks, where you can hear skaters talk in dozens of different languages. London has become a second home for many immigrants who, by starting their lives over in a new country, entered a totally new social network formed by the majority of ‘natives’ and minority communities, all of which live by certain rules, also rules governing their modes of communication. Continue reading London in November – Bilingual communities in the city

Topic for today’s discussion…

This is quite a common picture of my work day: I log on into the system and the calls start arriving. First, an engineer from Aberdeen requests a new flight booking to Luanda. Then, an Italian travel arranger from Florence calls to modify an existing trip for one of her passengers. She speaks English to me and Italian to her colleague at the other desk. I am checking the availability of the new itinerary and listening to their conversation at the same time. When I am done, I inform the travel arranger of the cost of the new flights and she discusses with me the remaining details. After a few minutes we both realize that we switched to Italian, quite unconsciously. We are a little embarrassed and amused at the same time and this will be the anecdote of the day for both of us. Continue reading Topic for today’s discussion…