Have you ever looked at a phonetics textbook and thought, “Geez, this is really dry and boring”? I sure have. I remember when I first started learning phonetics here in Japan, we had this very standard, thorough, but utterly boring book written all in English. The Japanese students were having to translate everything just to learn the topic, and besides which all the examples were related to English! Not a great way to introduce the topic.
But a friend, co-researcher, and professor at Keio University has just published an excellent introduction to phonetics, Oto to kotoba no fushigi na sekai: meido koe kara eigo no tatsujin made (The Mysterious World of Sounds and Words: from Maid Voice to English Master). Instead of dividing the field up into articulation, acoustics and perception, and introducing topics in that very linear (and boring) fashion that textbooks usually do, he starts each chapter with an intriguing little mystery. For example, what’s up with the weird put-on voice that girls in maid cafes effect? How exactly are [r] and [l] sounds different? In the course of solving those mysteries, he explains the principles of phonetics. I read the draft manuscript, and if I as a non-native Japanese speaker found it easy to read, I can guarantee that it’ll be a breeze for any Japanese reader looking for a simple, engaging introduction. Plus, it has a couple of figures that I drew in it!
This is the poster we’re presenting this week in Glasgow, designed by yours truly. In quick, layman’s terms:
We had people say the phrase ‘Pam said bat that fat cat at that mat’, with emphasis placed on different words. We measured the movements of their jaws, lips and tongues, and used that to estimate the ‘magnitude’ of each syllable. Then we asked college students from the US and Japan to judge whether they heard stress on a syllable, and whether they heard breaks between syllables. It turns out that they can hear how much speakers move their jaws pretty well—we think this is a major signal of stress. They also tend to hear a break before ‘strong’ syllables.
The hope is that this research will contribute to an understanding of how people articulate the rhythm and stress of language. In this case, we were looking at English, but it’s part of a larger series of projects comparing the articulation of speakers of other languages as well.
Me holding up a couple of vocal tract models.
Last weekend, our lab gave a demo at the National Museum of Nature and Science here in Tokyo. They were running an event called Science Square, where kids can come and meet scientists and engineers and participate in hands-on activities. If you’ve never been to the museum, it’s a really cool place, right inside Ueno Park. They’ve got dinosaurs!
We didn’t present anything about plesiosaurs, though. Our lab gave a demo aimed at elementary school students on how human speech works. More than 300 kids walked through, and got to make their own recordings, play with the equipment, and get a print out of their own voice. We had a few curious adults come through as well. Naturally, I was tasked with explaining things to foreign visitors, but honestly anyone in our lab has good enough English to do that. Mostly, I explained the basic theory, helped the kids make recordings, and used my experience as an Eikaiwa clown to amuse the little ones.
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Jordi Navarra, Jordi; Soto-Faraco, Salvador (2005). Hearing lips in a second language: visual articulatory information enables the perception of second language sounds. Psychological Research 71: 4-12
Studies on speech perception have tended to focus on sound as the only cue. In speech sciences, we usually talk about phonemes in terms of sounds, and we think of the ‘speech signal’ as being acoustic, mainly. But sound isn’t the only cue that listeners get! There’s a whole wide world of visual information available: movements in mouth, gestures, eye contanct, and so on. This study examines the effect of video on the perception of sounds from another language, and comparing the perceptions of listeners with and without footage of the speaker’s mouth moving. This is almost exactly what I tried to do in my MA thesis, although I was looking more at training effects.
Navarra and Soto-Faraco have a good amount of theoretical backing for the idea that mouth movements ought to be helpful, and their experimental design is really clean and understandable. It doesn’t seem to have a ton of citations, but for my research, this paper is about as close to an ideal source as I could get!
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Pons, Ferran; Bosch, Laura; Lewkowicz, David J. (2015). Bilingualism modulates infants’ selective attention to the mouth of a talking face. Psychological Science, April 2015; vol. 26, 4: 490-498
When I first heard about this study, I was in the middle of writing up my MA thesis on the effects of video for learning new speech sounds. I was washing the dishes and listening to the Science Friday podcast—I’m a huge podcast listener. I heard an interview with one of the authors, David Lewkowicz, and I had to immediately drop what I was doing and start taking notes. Thankfully, the plate survived!
The study, “Bilingualism modulates infants’ selective attention to the mouth of a talking face”, seems to have gotten a fair bit of attention in popular media. It’s one of those rare studies that is straightforward in its approach, unambiguous in its findings, and relevant to a whole bunch of fields. And it’s succinct! 8 pages, including graphs and references. This is the kind of thing I want to publish one day.
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Today I took the very long, arduous 5 minute walk to Waseda campus, and heard five talks from phoneticists in and around Tokyo. I used to feel pretty nervous about going to these kinds of meetings, but now that I know more people, it’s a lot easier to just relax and focus on the talks. In the interest of keeping it fresh in my head, here are my notes from the meeting. Some of these topics are a little outside my own fields of interest, so I apologize in advance if I completely misunderstood something!
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