I thank you will agree that we do not always hear the same words. And no, “thank you” is not a typo. If you were to hear someone with a south-central Appalachian dialect say the actual phrase, “I think you’ll agree that we don’t always hear the same words,” you might hear the word “think” pronounced as ” thank you”.
Abby Walker, associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of English, and her collaborator Janet van Hell, professor of psychology and linguistics at Penn State, are exploring these types of linguistics with a grant from the National Science Foundation. They study how people with long-term exposure to more than one dialect of the same language process different dialects. They will explore the speed and accuracy needed to understand speech. They focus on south-central Appalachia and traditional American English.
“The focus on southwest Virginia is because different dialects are so visible in and around Blacksburg,” said Walker, who is also co-director of Virginia Tech’s Speech Lab.
“Even though we are in southwest Virginia, where we would expect to hear more south-central Appalachian accents, a lot of our Commonwealth students come from northern Virginia,” he said. -she adds. “We also have students and teachers from all over the country and the world here. There are many variations in this community to consider.
Study participants will include those in college and community populations and will involve the use of a portable electroencephalogram, or EEG, unit. Using electrodes attached to the scalp, the machine detects electrical activity in the brain. From the comfort of participants’ homes, researchers will play audio of people speaking different dialects.
Sometimes researchers will include the video with the audio, so that participants can become familiar with how certain speakers sound. Based on this, they should form strong expectations between seeing a speaker and hearing a particular dialect. At other times, participants will only hear the audio. The EEG will show how the brain responds to dialects in both types of scenarios, when hearing a particular dialect is or is not predictable.
Of particular interest to Walker is how people react to accents.
“I am a New Zealander living in the United States,” she said. “Usually the communication is pretty easy, but for me it’s always cross-dialectical communication, and so sometimes mishaps happen – for example, someone thought my husband was a whip designer, not a designer of websites.
“It’s amazing how rare these communication problems are – my pronunciation is drastically different from the way most of my students pronounce words – and so our brains have to use all sorts of tricks to adapt. Looking at the mistakes that happen or the circumstances in which it seems more difficult can actually help us understand how we are so good at it most of the time.
Walker’s interest in bidialectal communication, using two dialects of the same language, has its roots in his linguistics thesis work at Ohio State University. She examined how expats living in England and the United States changed their speech depending on whether they were talking about English or American topics. The project also involved exploring whether substantial exposure to more than one dialect had an impact on participants’ listening skills.
And then Walker met Janet van Hell at a conference at Penn State. The Penn State professor focuses on bilingual processing. As they got to know each other, the two discovered that they shared an interest in the similarities and differences between bilingual and bidialectal listening.
This conversation became Walker and van Hell’s inspiration for a pilot study funded by the Virginia Tech Institute of Science, Culture and Environment. Along with the late Mike Bowers, a co-investigator who was an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech School of Neuroscience, the team explored how Virginia Tech students in northern Virginia and southern states responded to southern accents and the United States.
The results suggest that the two populations of students were similar when listening to audio recordings. Both were better at understanding traditional accents. When researchers first introduced a speaker to listeners through video, it gave listeners the opportunity to form expectations about how a particular speaker should sound. When listeners both saw and heard the speaker, the dialect did not always match expectations. And this is where the results between the two groups of listeners differed: listeners in the South were strongly affected by the dialect shifts, but listeners in Northern Virginia were not.
“We assume that our Southern participants are quite bidialectal in terms of listening, because they hear so much fluent American English, regardless of their local dialect,” she said. “That was pretty strong evidence that bidialect listeners listen differently than more monodialect listeners.”
Walker said one possible interpretation of these pilot results is that bidialect listeners in the South pay more attention to contextual cues, such as who is speaking — so they can prepare to listen to a particular dialect. They have spent their entire lives adjusting their listening system for such events. Or it’s possible that both groups paid equal attention to context, but only Southern listeners, who grew up with both dialects, were helped by context. Listeners in Northern Virginia could only use a mainstream listening system, regardless of the dialect they were expecting.
In this study, participants simply had to decide whether the spoken word was real or not and press a button with their response. The researchers recorded the precision and timing of the response and used them to determine the results.
But Walker said that in addition to expanding their pool of participants beyond student populations, the EEG unit will add more scope to the research in the team’s project, “Listening out for variation: An investigation of mono- and bidialectal listeners in the US”
“Part of what’s exciting is that with the responses you get with the EEG, you’re not only able to see very early preconscious responses, but you’re often seeing qualitatively different responses depending on the location. where the processing difficulties occur,” Walker said. “For example, we will be able to see if a person’s slower response in terms of button presses is due to difficulty processing sounds or difficulty matching what they heard to their mental dictionary. .”
Walker’s portion of the National Science Funding grant funding, beyond paying participants, will be used to pay undergraduate research assistants who come from southwestern Virginia. Her first is Sherree Ann Shuler, a sociology major. Shuler has designed an original research project that will complement the larger project.
According to Walker, Shuler is leading a perceptual dialectology project on Southwestern Virginia by Southwestern Virginians. Her study captures local participants’ understanding of dialectal variation in the region.
“There hasn’t been a lot of linguistic research on dialect patterns in this region, and so we’re starting from a place where we’re just asking locals if they think there are dialect distinctions in the region of Blacksburg, and what particular characteristics they’ve noticed,” Walker said. “We’re also interested in what kind of affective labels they give to variation in the region. When researchers do these kinds of dialectology studies Perceptual in other places, speech in Appalachian regions is often negatively labeled by outsiders.Given these stereotypes, we are interested in how insiders speak their own speech.
Walker said she hopes this project will inspire more people to respect other people’s dialects and want more exposure to a wide variety of accents.
“There could be advantages to being someone who has encountered many different dialects, including those that are often discriminated against,” she said. “Not only will you be able to understand the multiple dialects you have been exposed to, but there are hints in the research – including my own – that you may be able to apply these flexible listening skills to many new dialects that you have never heard before..”
Walker notes that this type of research reminds us that communication is a two-way street.
“If you have trouble understanding someone with a different accent than yours, it’s no more the speaker’s fault than it’s your fault as the listener,” she said. . “Inter-dialectal communication will sometimes be difficult. It’s inevitable. But I would be generous and humble when it happened. And I think these challenges are a good opportunity to reflect on the quality of our perceptual systems, because listening is normally so easy for people who can hear well that we don’t recognize how complex and lightning-fast the process is. .
Written by Leslie King