Carrie Gillon: Hi. Welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: And I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: Well, happy 2020 to you.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, my god.
Megan Figueroa: I act like we never talk, by the way. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We only talk during our podcast and never at any other time.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. We actually hate each other and never speak. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, 2020. There’s just something terrifying about that number.
Megan Figueroa: I know. It doesn’t seem real.
Carrie Gillon: It doesn’t help that 2020 has already been a dumpster fire of a year.
Megan Figueroa: I know. It really has. And, I mean, it’s America’s fault. Let’s be real.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It is.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, mostly. And since – I mean, I’ve been thinking about Australia a lot and I know we have a lot of listeners there so sending loving thoughts to Australia.
Carrie Gillon: I know. I can’t even think about it too much because it’s so sad.
Megan Figueroa: I know. Yeah. I saw this thing – it was an article. It was a climate scientist, and the headline was “Things That Keep Us Up at Night.” I was like, “Oh, shit.” Yeah, I guess being a climate scientist is kind of a real shit experience.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen these kind of articles for a long time now because they’re like, “We know what’s coming.” And now, it’s, “We saw this was coming, and here it is.” I’m so mad at some of my friends who would say things like, “Oh, this is all overblown.” Well, was it?
Megan Figueroa: Right? Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Anyway. Let’s talk about language!
Megan Figueroa: Yes, sorry. Hi. The world is ending.
Carrie Gillon: Let’s pretend it’s not, just briefly.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Yes. For about an hour. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: As FilmEssaying pointed out to us –
Megan Figueroa: On Twitter.
Carrie Gillon: – on Twitter, Sharon Choi, who translated for Bong Joon Ho, who won for Parasite, which is an amazing film if you haven’t seen it.
Megan Figueroa: At the Golden Globes, right? Best Foreign Language Film.
Carrie Gillon: Right. Everyone was praising his speech that he gave in Korean. But really the words that we understood – unless you’re a Korean speaker, but for those of us who aren’t – were Sharon Choi’s trans – wow, not translator, interpreter – her interpretation of his words. What we heard was, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” which is true. I love his films. The ones that I’ve seen, anyway, are all really great – and mostly in Korean.
Actually, T.K. of AAK!, or AskAKorean, on Twitter says, “A more direct and worse translation for Bong’s remark might be ‘The barrier called subtitles – well, it’s not even really a barrier – it’s barely an inch. Once you jump over that barrier, you can enjoy many more films.’” So, that’s a more literal translation of what he said.
Megan Figueroa: Huh. The sentiment is still, I think, 100% there. She said it in a way that feels very poetic because it was, I dunno, I guess in English at least it was less words. It was like – I dunno what it is about it.
Carrie Gillon: It was pithier.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, that’s the word I’m looking for. Exactly. But I feel the same. Hearing that more direct translation of it, the sentiment for me is exactly the same.
Carrie Gillon: The sentiment’s the same. It’s just slightly more awkward, which makes sense because when you’re speaking on the fly, you can say the most beautiful things in the most awkward ways.
Megan Figueroa: Listen. That’s how I feel about everything I say on this podcast. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Right? Yes. Because we’re not speaking from a script.
Megan Figueroa: No. Well, no shit. Everyone’s like, “No shit you aren’t.” [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we did write this all out?
Megan Figueroa: Oh, my god. If we wrote this all out, I think we’d actually be pretty good at dialogue.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, no. It would be a really good skill, for sure.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. So, I saw that. And, of course, Nyle DiMarco, the deaf actor and model that I follow on Twitter, he was like, “Yeah, deaf and hard of hearing people have been saying this forever,” you know, because subtitles make films accessible for them.
I think about this because, growing up, I had the privilege of – I am hearing. My parents are hearing. So, I just didn’t grow up in family where we watched subtitled films or any foreign films. When I was younger, I was like, “That’s what rich people do. They watch foreign films.” I thought it was a privileged thing to be able to watch foreign films. I never thought about it as an accessibility issue until I was older.
Carrie Gillon: Right. Yeah. I mean, I guess it is a privilege but it’s not a privilege in the sense of – it costs the same as any other movie. So, it’s not an economic issue. But there are people, I guess, who are not super literate. So, maybe for them – we don’t wanna say, “If you can’t read subtitles then you’re worthless” or anything like that – no. But, if you can, you should try! There’s many, many, many great films that are subtitled.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I don’t have dyslexia, but it might be uncomfortable, too, for people who have dyslexia. Although, I have seen some dyslexic people share the type of font that you use may be more helpful. I wonder if that’s been done – if people have made subtitles using that kinda font or anything.
Anyway, if you know, let us know. I think that’s really interesting.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And I will say that not all subtitling is – it’s not all equal. Sometimes, the way that they’re – like, okay. There’s always the choice that you’re making, right, when you’re translating a movie – do you say it more directly or do you say it more poetically, right?
Megan Figueroa: Mm-hmm, yes.
Carrie Gillon: But also there’s the font choice or even the color of the font. Sometimes, it’s hard to read. It’s been better more recently than in the past. But there’ve definitely been movies where I’m like, “I’m glad that I have super great eyesight” – or, well, with my glasses anyway.
Megan Figueroa: It’s so tiny!
Carrie Gillon: But like, “I can actually read this, but it’s really hard.”
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Sometimes, I just don’t think that they’re as large as I would like them to be.
Carrie Gillon: Which is another – there’s another constraint, right? Because if you make them too big, then you’re covering up stuff –
Megan Figueroa: It’s true.
Carrie Gillon: – some visual information. So, it’s tricky. But, anyway.
Megan Figueroa: Actually, this is kind of related to what we’re talking about today with our guest. Because I was thinking about how sometimes with Derry Girls, which is – it’s Irish English. And I sometimes put subtitles on just so that I can understand some of the words better. Obviously, we speak the same language, right? But I’m enjoying the show. Sometimes, it takes me a little bit harder to work through what they’re saying if I’m not also reading subtitles.
Carrie Gillon: Right. Yes.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. We talk about that today with our guest.
Carrie Gillon: Well, we don’t talk about subtitles, but we do talk about the difficulties of understanding mostly non-native accents but also some native accents that are very different from our own.
Megan Figueroa: Exactly. And what that means to process that and how it is more difficult but not a barrier that cannot be surpassed with practice.
Carrie Gillon: Yes. It’s all about practice.
Megan Figueroa: You get better. Just like anything.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And if subtitles help, then definitely you should use them. There’s no shame. No shame.
Megan Figueroa: No. Are there some people that think that there’s shame involved?
Carrie Gillon: Yes.
Megan Figueroa: Aww. Of course. We’re so good at shaming ourselves and each other.
Carrie Gillon: Ugh. Yes. I don’t even wanna get started on that topic because – oh boy.
Megan Figueroa: I know. When did this become therapy? [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: I think the very first episode.
Megan Figueroa: It’s really true. So, we wanted to make one note before we go over to our guest is that we talk about native and non-native accent. That’s just one way of talking about it. Carrie, have you heard other ways people talk about native versus non-native?
Carrie Gillon: I’m sure there are other ways of talking about, but I don’t think I know of another way of saying it.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I mean, I wanna point out that we don’t mean to other, right? It’s just one way of talking about –
Carrie Gillon: Other than L1 and L2, which is the way that linguists talk about it. But outside of that – no.
Megan Figueroa: So, this is an accessible way of talking about it because we all understand what we’re talking about. But we do wanna make a point that everyone has an accent.
Carrie Gillon: It’s impossible to not have an accent.
Megan Figueroa Exactly.
Carrie Gillon: I was editing a novel for the very first time. And in this novel, one of the characters basically has been turned into a cyborg, and the author describes this person as not having an accent. And I was just like – because they’re computerized. But I was like, “Hmm. [Laughter] Nope. There’s still an accent there.” Because there’s still pronunciation choices that you’re making –
Megan Figueroa: That’s true.
Carrie Gillon: – for the computer program that’s creating the sounds. Anyway.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, that’s a good point. Because Siri definitely does not know how to pronounce some Spanish words the way they are pronounced in Spanish.
Carrie Gillon: Right. Well, also –
Megan Figueroa: Siri’s got an accent.
Carrie Gillon: Well, I mean, the original Siri has a California accent because that’s where that woman – the voice per –
Megan Figueroa: Oh! Yes, of course. That makes sense.
Carrie Gillon: – the voice actor comes from.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, wait. That’s a person?
Carrie Gillon: It’s a person!
Megan Figueroa: It’s not computerized?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Well, the –
Megan Figueroa: I didn’t know that.
Carrie Gillon: – sounds are from – yeah. The words are from a person, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Huh. Okay.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. You didn’t know that?
Megan Figueroa: No.
Carrie Gillon: You can follow her on Twitter. Or at least you used to be able to.
Megan Figueroa: Huh. I mean, okay. That makes sense. So, they’re taking words that she said individually and then putting them together. So, that’s why it sounds like a robot to me.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. It’s obviously not fluid human speech.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: But it is human speech, yeah.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Oh. Well, I learned something. Time to call it quits for today at 11:00 in the morning. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: Today, we have Dr. Melissa Michaud Baese-Berk, who is an associate professor and David M. and Nancy L. Petrone Faculty Scholar in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Oregon. She’s also the director of the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching certificate program and the director of Undergraduate Studies. In her research she focuses on phonology and phonetics, examining speech perception and production with special attention to non-native speakers and listeners.
First, before we start on the question we really wanna talk about, can you explain what speech perception and speech production are?
Melissa Baese-Berk: Sure. Those are good questions. When I talk about speech perception, I’m talking about how we go from the acoustic signal, or the sound waves that hit our ear drum, to coming up with a linguistic message. I’m interested in everything that happens during that process, so how we turn those sound waves into meaningful sounds and then how we combine those sounds to make words that we can understand. Then, I basically stop at the words more than moving up to the sentences.
Then, for production, I’m talking about the other side of that process, which is how we go from having some sort of linguistic message that we know we wanna convey, some idea that we wanna convey, and how we turn that into speech sounds.
I do work primarily on speech, but a lot of the stuff that I talk and think about, I think, can also be applied to signed languages. I just focus on the speech side. So, when I say “speech,” I’m mostly talking about the sound side of things. But I think a lot of it can be applied to other modalities as well.
Megan Figueroa: I think that’s a really important – I’m glad that you asked, Carrie. I think about production and perception all the time as someone who looks at how babies perceive sounds. Because I’m looking at babies before they even start producing things and I think so much about how we know so much before we’re able to produce something.
And I think that can be said about adults too. We are doing so much internal calculus before we respond to someone or when we’re taking in the message. That’s what we really wanted to talk to you about today because we’re doing a lot of that and there’s a lot of, unfortunately, discrimination that can come out when we’re doing that internal calculus.
And we’re all guilty, that’s why, again, having the podcast it’s like, “I’ve been there.” We have all of these biases that are at play when we hear speech. Yeah. Really glad to have you on the show.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Good. I’m glad to be here.
Carrie Gillon: You also look at the interaction between speech perception and speech production. How do they interact?
Melissa Baese-Berk: That’s a really good question. It’s something that’s super complex and we’re still trying to figure this out. One common assumption has been that speech perception and production are basically the same processes, just in reverse. So, one ends with an ear and one ends with a mouth and everything else in between is exactly the same.
I think, because of what Megan was just saying, we know really that that can’t be true because we can perceive so much more than we can produce and there are different factors that impact these two processes really differently. What we’re interested in specifically in the lab is how they interact during learning, which seems to be something that is really, really complicated.
So, I think everybody has had an experience or many people have had experiences in classrooms or learning a second language where you feel like you’re not able to express the things that you want to express even if you can understand them. I have always been a person who was like that. I’ve been very jealous of my friends who, it feels like, the oral fluency comes really easily to them, but then you put them in a natural communicative situation, and they can’t understand what somebody’s saying, maybe.
And so we’re interested in why these two things may develop at different rates. We’re peeling it back to the most basic level, looking at speech sounds and how those are related in perception and production during learning. But other labs have been working on the higher-up stuff, how words and sentences and grammar are related in perception and production. There’s some really nice work out of, for example, Maryellen MacDonald’s lab at University of Wisconsin, where Elise Hopman, one of her students, is looking at those issues.
Megan Figueroa: How does speech production differ between native and non-native speakers?
Melissa Baese-Berk: This is also something we’re trying to unpack the specifics of. What we know for sure is that native speakers and non-native speakers produce speech in different ways. We know that your first language, if you are a non-native speaker, will impact how you produce your second language.
There’re some general properties of second language speech. It tends to be slower than native language speech and it tends to deviate on all levels. By that I mean, like, segments tend to be different. So, the actual sounds tend to be different, sometimes in more or less systematic ways. The prosody, or the rhythm and pitch and intonation information, also differs. And, of course, non-native speakers don’t have the same vocabulary that native speakers do in all cases. So, there might be differences in words or in grammatical structure, so how we put together a sentence.
All of those things are influenced by our first language, for sure, but they’re also influenced by the challenge of trying to communicate in your second language, which is – as many of your listeners, I’m sure, know – is a real challenge, right? It’s something that’s a really hard thing to do.
Megan Figueroa: Just beyond the individual sound, if you just take one sentence in your non-native language and you say it, and as someone who is a native speaker says it, the melody might sound completely different. The “melody” – is that the right word for that? Yeah. So, it’ll be influenced by your first language.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. Even if you get almost all of all of the sounds almost exactly right, people are really good at telling if somebody is a native or a non-native speaker. There’s one study – and I can find the citation to send it to you all – where if you just play a T-burst for somebody, the burst of the sound /t/ – and this is, I think, French speakers – people can tell at a much greater than chance level if somebody is a native or a non-native speaker, which is totally wild, right?
We have all of these cues that somebody is or isn’t a native speaker. Those cues are used by listeners. I think that’s a really important thing to know in production. We’re not just listening to the speech for the actual speech sounds, we’re also using it – as you all have talked about a bunch – to figure out other things about the speaker, who they are in terms of their identity. One of the clearest things, one of the things people are best at, is telling whether somebody is a native speaker of the language or not.
Carrie Gillon: How about speech perception? How does that differ between native and non-native speakers?
Melissa Baese-Berk: Again, this differs pretty substantially, influenced by our first language. For example, the most famous case study is Japanese R and L, right? Or R and L in English, rather, for Japanese listeners. It is a really tricky thing for Japanese listeners to tell the difference between R and L, and we think that’s probably because the cue that signals R and L in English – which is the third formant, for anybody who’s caring about phonetics. If you don’t care about phonetics, it’s fine. There’s a cue in the speech signal that differs, which is the F3. That cue is not used meaningfully in Japanese to differentiate speech sounds.
If you’re a listener from Japanese trying to learn English, you have to learn to pay attention to something that you have never really paid attention to before. That’s a really, really challenging thing. Any time you’re learning any new skill, trying to pay attention to something that you haven’t paid attention to before is probably the hardest thing, right?
Megan Figueroa: Especially since – so thinking about developmentally – we narrow down our sounds as babies, if we are hearing babies. In the first six months, it’s vowels. And then the first year, it’s consonants. We, of course, are able to recognize all sounds when we’re babies, if we’re hearing, but then it narrows very quickly. So, the fact that all of these things, like, there’re cues to know if someone hasn’t been using this language their whole life, it makes sense because –
Melissa Baese-Berk: It does make sense, right? And there’s a reason why we see that narrowing, which is there’s so much variation in speech in general and you have to know what variation to pay attention to and what variation to ignore. Otherwise, you’re not gonna be able to do speech perception. You’re just literally not gonna be able to do it.
Narrowing our categories into these really fine-tuned categories for our first language is a super useful thing, but it’s really hard to unwind that and make our categories either broader or able to be developed into a two-language system instead of a single-language system.
Megan Figueroa: I think it’s important – this is not a thing where suddenly – or not suddenly. This is not a thing where non-native speakers are not capable humans. It’s a thing where it’s like, “Oh, no, your brain is doing exactly what it needed to do.” And so, exactly, unwinding that is very, very difficult.
Melissa Baese-Berk: It’s something that we forget when we’re listening to non-native speakers that they are native speakers in another language and that they are able to communicate the way I am communicating with you all right now without a ton of conscious effort and a ton of conscious thought. We’re able to do that in our native language. And as soon as you put somebody in a second language, that job becomes so much harder.
There’s a great quote from Javier Bardem when he was interviewed on Fresh Air.
[Excerpt from Fresh Air]
Javier Bardem: There is this office in my brain full of people working at the same time that I’m talking to you trying to not, I mean, be wrong with the intonation, with the words. So, it’s very exhausting.
Dave Davies: The office is translating, right? Okay.
Javier Bardem: Exactly. If I speak Spanish, that office is closed. There is nobody in the office. I mean, I’m fine by my own.
He talks about how, when he is communicating in English, it’s like having an office full of people in his head who are trying to make sure that nothing goes out the door before it’s been fact checked. But when he’s speaking in Spanish, that office is closed. He doesn’t need the office full of people. I love that analogy because it really, I think, brings home the point of how challenging this is and how much work it is to communicate in your second language.
Carrie Gillon: That is a really good metaphor. And that is exactly how I feel whenever I’m trying to speak in any other language but English. Is non-native speech harder to understand than native speech?
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. It is harder to understand. We know this about speech that we’re unfamiliar with in general. An unfamiliar talker is harder to understand than a familiar talker. You see this, for example, with parents with little kids. They can understand their kids totally fine, and you may not be able to understand their little kid as well.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. When someone’s like, “He just said this.” I’m like, “Uh, did he?” [Laughter]
Melissa Baese-Berk: Right. We’re very good at understanding familiar talkers. We’re very good at understanding familiar accents and dialects. We’re less good at doing that when it’s unfamiliar. Again, this is just a practice thing, right? We have experience doing this particular skill, and when we have to step outside of that particular skill, it gets a little bit harder. I think we’ll probably get into this in a bit, but it’s not prohibitively harder. That’s the message I’m interested in spreading.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: Yes, exactly.
Megan Figueroa: Us too. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: I mean, we’ve talked about it before. It’s just a matter of listening. So, how do language ideologies or attitudes impact our understanding of non-native speech?
Melissa Baese-Berk: It’s a good question. It’s something that I sort of have exasperated sigh here. Much more so than we, I think, would like them to. There’s been a lot of great work ranging from Rubin’s work to Kevin McGowan’s work looking at how just looking at a non-native speaker or someone who you think is probably gonna be a non-native speaker impacts your perception.
We know, especially from Kevin’s work, that that’s probably grounded in expectation. If you expect to hear an accent – if you see somebody who you expect to be accented – you’re likely to perceive them as, in fact, being accented. If you see somebody who is accented and you hear something that is not accented, that often can be – or if you see, rather, a person who you expect not to be accented and hear accented speech, that can also be disorienting for people. I’m using “accented” here to mean non-native accented, not in the “native speakers don’t have an accent” sense. I just wanna make that perfectly clear.
So, we know that that impacts things a lot. We also know that there are tons of individual differences in terms of people’s ability to understand unfamiliar speech. These individual differences can be driven by things like cognitive skills, so how big your vocabulary is can impact how well you’re able to understand unfamiliar speech. But they can also be influenced by social factors like attitudes toward non-native speakers.
We’ve done some work – a couple of instructors at the American English Institute, which is our ESL program here at University of Oregon and I –have done some work looking at how attitudes impact a score we call “comprehensibility.” When you’re talking about speech perception, especially of longer sentences, you can divvy this up into a few pots. You can talk about how accented someone is, and that’s just a sort of subjective measure of how accented you think the speech is. You can talk about intelligibility, which is how many words are you correctly able to transcribe. Then, you can ask people a question about comprehensibility or ease of understanding. How hard is it to understand this speech?
What we found is that, even when people have exactly the same intelligibility scores – so they’re able to transcribe the speech perfectly fine – you see comprehensibility scores differ, so their feeling about how easy the task was differs. The primary factor that predicted performance on that comprehensibility task was attitude about non-native speakers, which is a huge bummer because they’re able to actually understand the speech, but they feel like it’s really hard.
One thing we’re interested in doing – and one of my former students, Drew McLaughlin, is now doing this work at Washington University in St. Louis, looking at actual listening effort – how much effort are these people putting in, using physiological measures, things like pupillometry, where we can see how much effort people are putting into these tasks.
When I first saw these results, I wanted to figure out a way to make them slightly less depressing, and one potential option is you have a bad attitude about non-native speech because it is objectively harder for you to understand. It’s harder for you for maybe cognitive reasons. And those cognitive reasons might actually impact you having a negative attitude.
It could be this sort of vicious cycle where it’s really hard for you to understand and so you’re frustrated by that because we’re frustrated when we can’t communicate as well as we’d like to. So, you’re frustrated. You spend more effort doing this task. The more effort makes your tired-er. And we all know that when we’re tired, we’re really crabby. So, you’re crabby about spending more effort, and that makes you have a bad attitude about this.
I’m not sure about the causality in that direction. People could just be jerks. But I think that there’s something to be said about trying to unpack this idea of how much effort people feel like they’re putting forth and how much effort they are actually physiologically putting forth.
Carrie Gillon: Are they putting forth more effort?
Melissa Baese-Berk: We haven’t tied the attitude piece to the effort piece yet because Drew has been doing some really amazing work on pupillometry. We do know that even for fully intelligible speech – this is non-native speech that everybody can understand really clearly – Drew and her advisor have been doing work that shows that pupillometry measures demonstrate that people are putting forth more effort when they’re listening to non-native speech, even if it is fully intelligible.
We’re not making it too hard for them, it’s just more effortful. And that makes sense, right? It is something that deviates from the norm and we have to probably put forth a little more effort to understand.
Carrie Gillon: Has anyone also studied different dialects of English that are still native and how much effort you have to put forth? I’m just thinking, my experience, one of my grandmother’s cousins, I could barely understand him. He was Scottish. His wife I could understand, who was also Scottish. And they grew up pretty close together, so it was interesting. Yeah. Just that much effort I had to put into understanding this person who spoke English.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Right. Well, a few things there. One is there have been a bunch of studies that have shown that there are gender differences in intelligibility. Women tend to be more intelligible than men for a lot of reasons, including potentially socialization reasons. That’s speculation on my part.
I’m not sure if there’s been a lot of work on effort and unfamiliar dialects, but there is plenty of work on perception of unfamiliar dialects, including some of our work – this is work jointly with Tessa Bent at Indiana, and Stephanie Borrie at Utah State, and Kristin Van Engen at Washington University in St. Louis – where we’ve looked out how perception of unfamiliar dialects correlates with perception of non-native speech.
We show that on some metrics, it does correlate. On others, it doesn’t. It sort of makes sense because as you pointed out, Carrie, they are, in fact, native speakers of the language and so there are some things that they’re doing that are probably distinct from what makes non-native speech hard to understand. But it is the case that, even for unfamiliar dialects, it’s gonna be a really challenging thing for listeners to hear and to understand.
Probably some of that is the effort piece. Probably some of that is expectation. And those two things are probably linked in interesting ways as well. There’s a lot still to be examined. If anybody’s looking for a career, this is a great one. [Laughter]
Carrie Gillon: So, one of the reasons why I even thought of this, I think it’s the show – the British quiz show – QI, which has Stephen Fry. They had a Geordie speaker on, and the Geordie speaker said something like, “Cunny” something.
[Excerpt from QI]
Male Speaker 1: They make a cunny noise like.
Stephen Fry: I beg your pardon?
Male Speaker 1: Ferns make a cunny noise.
And it sounds like “cunt” to us. What he was actually saying was “canny.” But Stephen Fry also misheard it. And so there was this whole conversation –
Melissa Baese-Berk: Oh, interesting.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So, I found that really fascinating because I thought Stephen Fry would be more likely to know the Geordie accent than me, and he was on the same footing as me actually.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s also the case that these things get harder the less context you have or the less frequency with which you heard the word. Maybe “canny” isn’t a word that comes up a lot, so he hasn’t had an opportunity to hear that particular thing. Perhaps for him the other lexical item is more frequent. Who knows. I mean, there’s a bunch of possibilities there. But I think it’s a really nice example of how all of these factors come into play.
When we’re listening to speech, we use every tool available to us. Some of those tools are things like, “What is the most likely word that this person has said?” And “canny” is a very low-frequency word.
Carrie Gillon: Absolutely. That’s exactly right.
Megan Figueroa: That goes back to how you said that vocabulary size will affect how you perceive non-native speech, so that makes a lot of sense. The thing that I think about automatically – and it’s because you’re at a university and this is where so many people, myself included, were introduced to so many different non-native speakers speaking English, etc. – is at university. And that might be the first time. These are also your subject pool, right?
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: I also wonder about the opposite where we have students that are not native speakers of English having to listen to professors that are. I’m just thinking about how hard they’re working to learn new information and to listen to something that’s not their first language.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Right. This is a challenge in education broadly speaking, for both languages and dialects. If you put a person in a classroom, whether they’re a college student or a five-year-old, with somebody who doesn’t speak a language or dialect that they’re used to hearing, they’re gonna have to work much, much harder. I almost said, “twice as hard,” but that sounded like I was quantifying effort. Much, much harder than people who have the benefit of having their language or dialect match the faculty members or the instructors.
Of course, this is gonna have costs in terms of content that you’re able to learn. This is true, I think, across the educational system. It’s particularly marked in college students, I think, because we’re expecting college students in general to function at such a high level. I personally cannot imagine attending college in a language other than my native language. I think it would’ve been extraordinarily difficult.
Whenever I encounter students, as an instructor, who are doing this, I try to approach them with as much sympathy as I can because they’re doing something that I am certainly not brave enough to do and many of their peers are certainly not brave enough to do. Trying to be really patient about the fact that they are doing something that, to me, feels impossible and doing it actually with quite high levels of success. That is astonishing.
Megan Figueroa: I think it’s just a very important thing to remember when we’re looking at our peers too. If you’re college kids – listening to the college kids, like I’m so far removed from it – but, yeah, thinking, what is it – you just don’t really know what people are going through. But I think about that a lot when listening to speech because, yeah, think about how hard that is. How hard is it to learn organic chemistry? And then you’re doing it with, like – it’s another l – yeah.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Exactly. I think that is something that a lot of people just don’t think about. Because we think about maybe the outward things a little bit more. Language is so automatic for us that we don’t really think about the challenges – “They already learned English. They’re here. They’ve learned English. Everything’s fine” – but not realizing how challenging it is.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I love suggesting study abroad for students who are able to study abroad, especially in a country that is not an English-speaking country, because I think it develops so much empathy in students who are able to go somewhere, even for very brief periods of time, where communication is a challenge for them and where they are now in a situation where they cannot communicate as fluently as they would like to communicate.
Carrie Gillon: When their brain is constantly working and you’re just so much more tired.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Exactly. I mean, I think – I have never slept so well as I did when I moved to Spain and started being surrounded by Spanish all the time. It was so exhausting. And I mean, you’re jetlagged and all the rest as well, but I was so exhausted just from trying to unpack what was going on around me that I took for granted in the US.
Megan Figueroa: I wonder if that’s a little bit of what’s happening – so, like I said, maybe you’re living in a bubble, and that can sound like whatever it was. You go to university. And then, say you’re a native speaker of English and the professor is a non-native speaker of English, you’re just not used to being placed in that position because you have been living in some sort of sound bubble. That might be really frustrating for you.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. I think it is. I think it is really frustrating for students. We have more than anecdotal evidence that it’s frustrating for students. A year or so ago, the advising office at UO contacted me and some other folks and said, “We’re getting all of these complaints from students – we’re getting complaints from parents – about non-native, especially TAs, but also instructors in general. What can we do about this?”
This is where some of the training work that I’ve been doing comes into play because we’ve done some scientific studies suggesting that if you just practice, you can get better at understanding unfamiliar speech, especially non-native speech. When I say “practice,” the trainings that we’ve done have been 30 minutes a day for two days. We show really robust generalization to novel talkers and to novel accents.
For me, that’s an hour of work. And it’s considered work, right, you’re transcribing all of the speech and really practicing trying to understand the speech. But you get percentage point gains in intelligibility that are quite high. One thing we’ve been developing is some training for students that help them understand both what the non-native speaker is going though, so some basic literacy about how hard it is to understand – or how hard it is communicate in your second language, rather. We do some basic literacy about the fact that it is hard to understand non-native speech – so validating their intuition that this is a challenging thing – but then showing them that you can get better at it.
I think that has been a really important thing for us to share, both with advisors and with students and parents, to help them understand all of the social pieces that go into this as well as the cognitive pieces. One thing we’ve been doing that I love that we’ve managed to include – so a lot of our students are motivated, as any humans are, by external motivators.
One of the things we’ve talked about is the fact that this is a skill that you can use when you’re applying for jobs. If you can tell an employer, a potential employer, “I also have experience communicating across language barriers.” That’s something that is really important if you’re working for a global company or even for a company that has any diversity in it at all. If you’re able to communicate with individuals or at least are willing to try, you’re going to be more successful than somebody who is focused on native English only.
Megan Figueroa: I love that so much. I’m thinking about what a training might – you’re a freshman coming into university, just as an example, again, of college. And instead of – at the welcoming event or whatever – instead of talking about the pitfalls, it could be more of a, “Another exciting thing that’s gonna happen to you is that you’re gonna be introduced to so many different people that speak in so many different ways. It might be a little bit hard at first, but that’s normal.”
If only someone had – like, I don’t think that I really needed to hear that at that point because I understood that, I think, at 18. I understand it more now. But if someone would’ve said that, it still would’ve been like, “Oh, I love that someone’s saying that.” I feel like that would’ve been very validating for so many people.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. So, we’ve been working – and it’s, of course, slow because universities are huge bureaucracies – but we’ve been working with the folks at orientation which we, because we’re Oregon, call “IntroDUCKtion” with a D-U-C-K because of the ducks. [Laughter]
Megan Figueroa: Wow. Okay. That’s kinda cute.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. It is pretty adorable. “IntroDUCKtion.” And also working with some folks on our web design team to come up with ways to include this in really early-on communication with students. One of the things we’re interested in doing is developing an online training that’s a sneaky training. So, like, “Click here to learn some facts about the University of Oregon,” and we have those facts being delivered not just by native speakers but also by non-native speakers in a variety of dialects, so you get just a little practice listening to those things and understanding them in sort of sneaky ways.
But also being very clear to students that it is an exciting thing. We’re at a global, international university that attracts students from all over the world and attracts the best faculty from all over the world. That’s the other thing we try to frame like, “Your faculty and your TAs know a lot, even if they are not able to communicate with you the way that maybe a native English speaker is able to communicate with you. As part of that benefit, you also have this challenge which is trying a little bit harder to understand what these people are saying.”
Megan Figueroa: What would you recommend to people who are not in this environment? You know, you’re not a freshman student coming to your university, but you still want to learn how to improve your communication with someone who speaks a non-English language as their first language.
Melissa Baese-Berk: I think, again, the answer is to practice. There’s a bunch of different, creative ways you can go about practicing. With YouTube now you can find accented speech all over the place. There are other great resources that are open source, so the Speech Accent Archive is one of those at George Mason University. Northwestern University has a bunch of freely available non-native speech that you can listen to and practice.
And you can think about why you want to get better at it, right? Is it the case that you have a friend who is a native Mandarin speaker and you just wanna get better at understanding that person’s speech? Well, one really good way to do that is hang out with that friend more and practice with that friend more. Is it the case that you have a big community of Spanish speakers in your area, and you don’t speak Spanish, and maybe you’re trying to learn Spanish but you still wanna be able to communicate with people whose native language is Spanish? Well, then listen to a lot of Spanish-accented English. We know that if you train on a single accent, you get better at that accent.
And if you want something that’s broader, practice across a wide variety of accents and you’ll, we think, improve at novel accents as well. You can target your practice to whatever you’re most interested in doing, but there’s plenty of ways to do that both in person and online.
I think one thing non-native speakers really appreciate is if somebody says to them like, “I am having a hard time understanding you, but I wanna get better at it, so can we practice more? Can I talk to you more often?” I think non-native speakers would be happy to hear that instead of what they typically experience which is the sort of shutting them down because they are not as fluent as a native English speaker.
Carrie Gillon: Or told to get rid of their accent.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Or told to get rid of their accent. This is a thing that, I think, one of the most frustrating things to me about perception of non-native speech is, as you all are very familiar in Arizona, the US has this big push toward English only in a variety of domains and insisting that if you live in the United States, you should speak English. Of course, there’re many, many, many problems with the viewpoint, which you all have covered in great detail.
But I think one of the things that is so frustrating to me is that even when people do speak English, they have learned English, it’s not enough because they’re not native English speakers. So, then we start to see it’s not really a problem with the language at all. It’s never been about Spanish. It’s never been about Spanish-accented English. It’s about the people. That, to me, is super sad and really frustrating.
I would like to give an opportunity to people who – it’s not the people, right, they just feel like non-native speech is hard to understand – an opportunity to them to say, “We’re asking people to do a lot by communicating with us in English. So, why don’t we do just a little bit” – my student Drew, who I mentioned before, has this great analogy that she came up with that I love, which is if you think about communication like moving a couch, if you ask one person to move a couch, it is going to be slow. It’s gonna be a really awkward process. Your floor is gonna get all scraped up from the couch getting dragged around the house. But if you have two people lift the couch, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It doesn’t mean that suddenly moving the couch is something that’s a day in the park. But you’re able to do the task. It’s easier when the communicative burden is shared across two parties.
So, I think even though you have to do a little bit of work, recognizing the huge amount of work that the other party is doing is something that, to me, is sort of a no-brainer in terms of wanting – I want to do that for communication. I think most people want to make communication be easier, especially when they realize the burden that the other person is carrying this case.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. That’s a really great metaphor as well.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. It’s a lovely one.
Megan Figueroa: Well, it’s really helpful because then – I mean, I hope that this episode at least is just like one step in that direction. Although, our listeners are already taking those steps. But it’s kind of that thing where you’re like, “Okay, now that I know this, maybe I’ve been placing too much either blame or, like, just trying to figure out what the problem is and putting it on the person instead of a situation or whatever it is.” Just like how, when we discriminate against language, it’s not just about language, it’s about the person. We need to separate those two things so that we aren’t blaming people.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Right. I think being very clear – I teach a class called Language and Power even though I’m not a sociolinguist. It’s my favorite class to teach because our tagline, even before you all came around, was also “Don’t be an asshole.”
Carrie Gillon: Really? Nice!
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah! So, I love teaching that class. I think one of the things that I end the class by talking about is, you know, I’m not saying you can’t make any judgements about language. We all make judgements about language all the time. There’s stuff you like. There’s stuff you don’t like. There’s stuff that’s frustrating. But being aware of what those judgements are and whether or not they’re actually judgements about language – are they judgements about language or are they judgements about people?
And being able to unpack that for yourself or for the people around you is something that I think is so critically important because we make these judgements about language and we pretend like they’re just about language and there’re easy fixes, but we would never, ever, ever, ever tell anybody to change their race. That’s not an acceptable thing to say. But to say, “Get rid of your accent,” that’s something that people say. That’s something people make money on.
People make lots and lots of money helping people get rid of their accents, which is, to me, a little bit horrifying, but I won’t dive into that well today. But I think being aware of what we are asking people to do, and what we’re asking people to do especially for non-native speakers who are not always here by choice, who are not always speaking English by choice, and the fact that we’re asking them to change something about their identity that’s so fundamental to who they are, that to me is something we should be thinking very carefully about as we do it.
Carrie Gillon: Absolutely.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely. I mean, I think you’ve already said it, but is there one main point that you feel is important that you could tell our listeners so we can all be less of an asshole about all of this?
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. I mean, I think that just recognizing that it takes two to tango, right? It takes two people to communicate and recognizing that both sides have some responsibility for the communication to be successful, I think, is the most important takeaway from this work.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. I love that. One of our guests, Ake, said, “Be good and be kind.” And I really – as we say, “Don’t be an asshole.” And we really mean it. I think that really helps relieve tension too when we say “Don’t be an asshole,” but “Be good and be kind” just gets me in the feels – like in my heart – and it’s like “Don’t you want to be good and be kind?”
Melissa Baese-Berk: Yeah. I mean, just putting a little bit of niceness into the world, if you can do something that is so – me trying a little harder to understand non-native speech is such a tiny thing. Why not just do this little tiny thing that makes somebody’s life a little bit easier? Because one thing we didn’t get into today, and I don’t wanna go into too much detail about, is some of the true horror stories people have about trying to communicate in their non-native language and the things that people say and do to them to shut them down. You know, bringing just a little bit of kindness back into those communicative scenarios, I think, is critically important.
Megan Figueroa: Absolutely.
Carrie Gillon: I agree.
Megan Figueroa: This has been a really great conversation. Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you wanted to talk about?
Melissa Baese-Berk: No. I think we hit all of the big-picture things that I’m really excited to talk about and things that I think are really ignored, I think, by a lot of our society. I’m super happy you all have this podcast. It is assigned as extra credit to my Language and Power students because it is so relevant for them. And it’s always exciting when they come in with, you know, they’ve gone through your back catalogue and found something that they’re really excited about.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, that’s amazing!
Megan Figueroa: I love that!
Melissa Baese-Berk: I appreciate the work you all are doing. I know it’s not – you cover so many topics that are not easy topics, but I’m super impressed with the work that you all have been doing.
Carrie Gillon: Aw, thank you!
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much. And now I know that I’m impressed with the work that you’re doing in Oregon.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Thank you.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much for being with us.
Melissa Baese-Berk: Oh, thank you. It’s been wonderful.
Megan Figueroa: And everyone –
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: We would like to thank our newest patrons from December.
Megan Figueroa: And ya’ll are the ones that helped us go over the goal we had, right?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah! So, we finally met our second goal. Going forward – so from this episode on – we can transcribe our episodes.
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: If you wanna help us meet our third goal, which is to pay for previous episodes – meanwhile, I’m doing them, but I would rather pay someone else to do them because it’s not my favorite thing to do.
Megan Figueroa: Yes. Yeah.
Carrie Gillon: You can also join us. But first, let’s thank our newest patrons! Kyle Wilkinson.
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: Shiloh Drake.
Megan Figueroa: Shiloh! Thank you.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah!
Megan Figueroa: I know you.
Carrie Gillon: Stephen Murphy.
Megan Figueroa: Yay!
Carrie Gillon: Mike Mena. And Adam Hartzel. So, if anyone wants to join us at patreon.com/vocalfriespod, you can join us at the $5, $3, or $2 level. We changed it from $1 to $2 because Patreon takes such a big chunk of the $1. But, $3 and $5, you get a sticker. Actually, you get multiple stickers over time. And the $5 level, you get bonus episodes. So, yeah, thank you!
Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillon, for Halftone Audio, theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and our website is vocalfriespod.com