7 sept. 2011

El Bloombito

A good question in the comments on this post by someone named Bernard:
I often wonder why the faculty to imitate an accent (≈ speak phonetically correctly) and to speak a language morphologically / syntactically / semantically / idiomatically /… correctly seem to be so independent – and why the latter has so little impact on people's judgement.

(This case may be a bit different, as anything beyond the phonetics is probably not Bloomberg's anyway.)

In other words, why can you learn to speak a language correctly, except for the phonetics and prosody, and still sound like a fool. Why can learners acquire all the rest of it, grammar, vocabulary, etc... without acquiring the phonetics? Why do phonetics enter in so strongly into our perception of speakers, so that, for example, a person with a relatively slight foreign accent (to my ears) and impeccable grammar will be told sh/e can't speak English at all?

Why am I tolerant of people speaking English in a wide variety of accents, but relatively intolerant of accents of non-Hispanophones trying to speak Spanish? (Well, maybe because I'm a Spanish teacher, duh.)

11 comentarios:

Shedding Khawatir dijo...

I think there are a couple of things going on:
1) There is fairly good evidence that our speech perception abilities are set at a very young age (like under two) while morpho-syntactic processing comes later. Psycholinguistic research demonstrates phonological processing differences between bilinguals who learned at two and those who learned from birth, even though the ones who started from age two do not have an accent in speech. So, they are separate. It can actually also work in reverse, which is common with heritage students who have really good accents, but sometimes poor morpho-syntactic abilities.

2) When non-linguistic judge a person's language, they tend to rely on whether or not it generally "sounds good" and phonology is the easiest way to make this assessment, particularly since most spontaneous speech is characterized with disfluencies even if one is a native speaker of the language

3) In addition to you being a Spanish teacher, accent tolerance probably depends on the situation. If you went to a lecture on engineering in Spanish by a speaker with an accent would you be as intolerant as if you went to a lecture by a Spanish teacher with an accent? Also, I don't know for Spanish, but in Arabic, and I'd imagine Spanish might be similar, there are so many different possible native-like accents that once you get over a certain threshold, people tend to assume you are native, they're just not sure from where.

Jonathan dijo...

Great answer! Thanks.

Thomas dijo...

I think English is a very generous language. All native speakers of English get used to hearing "their" language spoken in many different ways. A french accent in your English does not rob you of your dignity (often quite the opposite is true). As I try to tell my countrymen, they must not let their own attitudes about foreign accents undermine their confidence as English speakers.

Danes are generally very good at English. But in Denmark a foreign accent in your Danish can be very stigmatizing. I think Danes are reluctant to speak their grammatically competent English because they project their own prejudices about phonetics into the minds of their listeners. They forget that the same prejudices do not apply to English when spoken with an accent. The fact that we Danes are petty about how people speak our language does not mean that everyone is petty about such things. English has learned to contain multitudes.

Shedding Khawatir dijo...

Some speakers of English are generous. Unfortunately, not all of them are--there are also studies demonstrating discrimination against TAs with foreign accents at American universities. No need to tell your students this though :-)

Jonathan dijo...

I find it easy to understand, say, Chinese scientists who live next door to me, but from the perspective of undergraduate students a Chinese student who speaks about as well is "incomprehensible." Even our TAS who shouldn't be speaking English to the students at all are required to have a certain English proficiency to teach in the university.

The idea of a "foreign speaker who you can't understand" is culturally inflected. I might not be able to understand the English of a native of Missouri when I call a store. In some sense I am "discriminating" against his or her accent.

Shedding Khawatir dijo...

The problem is when the undergraduate students equate "incomprehensible to me" with "doesn't know the subject matter/can't teach" and are also unwilling to put forth effort to try to understand other accents. You would be an example of someone who tries to accommodate other accents, the students wouldn't be. This is, to some degree, a learned skill. It is also true that this type of discrimination applies to stigmatized native accents--some Americans would be more willing to accommodate to an Australian accent than a rural Southern one for example.

Jonathan dijo...

I think you are exactly right about this.

Thomas dijo...

Just to be clear. My comment was about otherwise correct (and comprehensible) that is merely spoken with an accent, i.e., an obvious foreignness, but not one that actually interferes with the ability of the listener to understand.

Jonathan dijo...

Right, and I think educated English speakers are generous with a foreign accent if it is prestigious-sounding (French say) and is easily comprehensible.

Vance Maverick dijo...

And (just to draw out your point) whether the listener is kindly disposed to the accent (for reasons of prestige, collegiality, etc.) and whether the accent is comprehensible to the listener are positively correlated. If I feel your Canadian "out"s as an imposition on my privilege, I'm more likely to find them hard to understand.

Shedding Khawatir dijo...

Exactly--"comprehensibility" is subject to social constraints as well as linguistic ones, so what is completely comprehensible to one person is not to another.