Pardon my accent!

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2020

A group of people with multicolored speech bubble above them

uOttawa research shows you can’t rely on pronunciation as a measure of linguistic proficiency.

A bilingual’s “accent” is a poor indicator of how well they master a language, according to a new uOttawa study.

Shana Poplack, Distinguished University Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Linguistics, PhD student Suzanne Robillard and Nathalie Dion, Research Coordinator at Poplack’s Sociolinguistics Laboratory, all at the University of Ottawa, together with John Paolillo, Associate Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, investigated the relationship between the structure of language mixing and its phonetic realization – in other words, the way it’s pronounced.

“The results of this research, which we’ve been conducting over the last several years, provide evidence that the way someone sounds when they’re speaking a language is no reflection of their mastery of word formation or sentence structure (grammar),” explained Shana Poplack.

From a massive 3.5 million-word corpus of the spontaneous speech of a random sample of 120 French-English bilinguals in Canada’s national capital region, the researchers pinpointed the speakers with the greatest proclivity for mixing languages.

They homed in on how those speakers pronounced certain consonants that exist in English, but not in French in a variety of different contexts. These included the “th” sound in words like THough and THanks, the “h” in Horn, the “r” in factoRies, and the “p”, “t” and “k” sounds in contexts where they are normally pronounced with a burst of air in English (like P(h)olluted).

Since only speakers who were found to be capable of producing these sounds in both languages were included in the study, the assumption was that they would pronounce the words in tandem with the way they treat them grammatically: in the French fashion when actually incorporating them into French (i.e. what linguists call “borrowing”), but in English when code-switching to longer stretches of that language. 

Instead, they discovered that the phonetic form language mixing takes is much more chaotic. Code-switches to English regularly failed to force English-style pronunciation, while borrowings from English – including those attested for centuries in French-language dictionaries (like bar) – are often still pronounced English-style rather than in French.

This result, coupled with the facts that both people’s accents and the words they borrow are so noticeable, all conspire to exaggerate the actual frequency of code-switching in bilingual speech.

“This kind of alternation among sounds from both languages, which is typical of “accents” everywhere, only reinforces the stereotype that bilinguals don’t speak any language properly,” said Dr. Poplack. “But listeners often get so carried away by the way someone sounds that they may overlook their native-like grammar.”

By exposing the fallacy of relying on pronunciation as a measure of linguistic proficiency, this research reminds us that if you rely on a person’s accent, you may be sorely misjudging how well they speak a language.

The article Revisiting phonetic integration in bilingual borrowing will be published in volume 96.1 (March 2020) of Language, the flagship journal of the Linguistic Society of America.

 

 

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Justine Boutet
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justine.boutet@uottawa.ca
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