Language Instruction

Your brain has an accent

Bret McCabe / Fall 2012 Posted in Science+Technology, Arts+Culture Tagged language, brain science

The sound of the a in rat is a low, front, unrounded vowel. The tongue's tip hits the back of the lower teeth and carpets the mouth. The mouth opens wide and the sound erupts from the throat. It can be a difficult sound to make for non-native English speakers. "It is an unusual sound, kind of an ugly sound, so people feel a little shy making this sound," says Julia Yarmolinskaya, A&S '10 (PhD), a lecturer in Johns Hopkins' Center for Language Education. Sitting in her office in the basement of Krieger Hall, she opens her mouth wide to make the short vowel, demonstrating how she works with the students in her Accent Reduction class, which is part of the summer Intensive English Language Program.

For Americans trying to learn French prior to a Paris holiday, a subpar understanding merely means being one of those tourists who asks for directions to the "Loo-vray." For non-native speakers of English trying to make it in America, an accent can be problematic. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, English-only rules in the workplace or harassment of people who speak English with an accent are unlawful. But if effective oral communication is a requisite, employers can legally take accent into account.

Typically, we learn new languages by listening to examples from instructors, or from language CDs or computer programs, then trying to mimic what we hear. Yarmolinskaya, a native Russian who speaks English with but a trace accent, comes at the situation a little differently through her interest in neurolinguistics. Her mother is a neurologist in Arkhangelsk, Russia, located on the White Sea about 750 miles due north of Moscow, and Yarmolinskaya recalls growing up fascinated by the cases her mother and her colleagues would discuss. She came to Johns Hopkins as a cognitive science doctoral candidate in 2002 and soon found herself interested in the phonology of second language acquisition and perception. While conducting her own experiments and going through published research, she came across findings that argued that the brain processes foreign sounds differently.

Everybody's phoneme bank is established very early in childhood, shaped by the languages the brain is exposed to. Those sounds eventually accrue the sophisticated meaning of speech. When the brain encounters sounds outside of its native language, though, it doesn't always know how to interpret them. It may reinterpret them according to what they sound like in the native tongue. Basically, the ears accurately convey a foreign sound, but when the brain tries to make sense of it, it substitutes a more familiar existing sound. So it's quite possible the brain isn't hearing a foreign sound correctly.

Yarmolinskaya encountered this phenomenon in her own research on phonologic perception with Slavic languages, which have some consonant clusters that don't exist in English. She had a subject who said he couldn't hear the difference between gleena (clay), which is pronounced "GLEENuh," and dleena (length), which is pronounced "dleen-UH." English doesn't have a corresponding "dl" sound, so his brain was hearing it as the more familiar "gl." There are various phonological processes that take place, but essentially the brain reinterprets it according to the phonological grammar of the first language. "And there's really nothing you can do," she says, adding, "you don't hear the difference between a foreign sound and a similar native sound, and [so you] fall back to your native sound because that's what you're used to."

Considered that way, an accent—the intensity of which can range across age groups and native languages—is a matter of understanding sounds. In short, Yarmolinskaya gives her students an intensive course of applied phonetics, which includes learning the International Phonetic Alphabet. Accents can only really be overcome through sustained language practice, but this approach gives non-native speakers an empirical framework in understanding sounds as an avenue toward learning how to produce English sounds better.

For the coming academic year, the center is offering Accent Reduction to the international teaching assistants. It's a pragmatic approach to language, one Yarmolinskaya experienced when she took a phonetics course and found it instructive. "That class was helpful to me because even though I did not have much accent, it really organized things in my mind. Now I know the differences between sounds. I may still not be able to produce them reliably or hear them reliably, but consciously I am aware of the differences and if I practice hard enough I'm able to differentiate [them] and say them correctly."

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