Monday, August 6, 2012

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Changing Personality in a Second Language

The other day, a Turkish friend of mine told me how he felt his personality changed when he spoke English. He said he became a much finer, more organized, elegant 'Mr. Know-it-all' (there is another word for that, one that fits better, but I shouldn't use it! ) I definitely know what he means. I have observed him arguing in English many many times and it really feels like there is another person, an English person speaking. It's not only his accent, it's also how his posture changes, the way he uses his hands and even moves his eyes. 
Another Turkish friend of mine directly switches to English whenever she is in an extremely emotional state. She uses short, striking sentences to make her point. She looks like she wants to avoid the emotional pressure of her native personality by switching into another "language's identity". Even when she texts, she  uses English to make her point and even if you answer her in Turkish, she won't give up unless her emotional state is stable again (let's hope she won't mind me using the word "stable"!).
I can easily say that the same 'switch' applies to me. As a native speaker of Turkish, I can easily say that I, too, switch to English whenever I am under stress or in a tense situation. I have no idea why I do this, but, I can feel the urge to change into another person. It makes whatever I have to say easier to say probably because it seems to lift a barrier that might exist in my native language.
This phenomenon might especially be true for taboo and swear words. I know for a fact that many of my Turkish friends swear more 'comfortably' in English. Studies have shown that the emotional impact of a swear word in a second language is less than it is in the native language (studies here, here, and here). 

In a study called "Blistering barnacles! What language do multilinguals swear in?!", Jean-Marce Dewaele (2004) mentions the Anglo-Candian born Nancy Huston explaining this phenomenon:
"Every false bilingual must have a specific map of lexical asymmetry, in my case it is in French that I feel at ease in an intellectual conversation, in an interview, in a colloquium, in any linguistic situation that draws on concepts and categories learned in adulthood. On the other hand, if I want to be mad, let myself go, swear, sing, yell, be moved by the pure pleasure of speech, it is in English that I do it" (Huston, 1999: 61)
After giving this example, Dewaele offers some insight into this situation:
"Huston’s testimony is backed up by psycholinguistic explorations and psychoanalytic case studies confirming that when a second language (L2) is learned post-puberty the two languages may indeed differ, with the first being the language of personal involvement and the second the language of distance and detachment, or at least the language of lesser emotional hold on the individual (Amati-Mehler, Argentieri & Canestri, 1993; Bond & Lai, 1986; Gonzalez-Reigosa, 1976; Javier, 1989; Pavlenko, 2002b). Altarriba argues that words that label emotion are represented at a deeper level of conceptual understanding in a native or dominant language as compared to a second language (Altarriba, 2000, 2003; Santiago-Rivera & Altarriba, 2002). Bond & Lai (1986) and Javier & Marcos (1989) show that codeswitching and the use of the second language may act as a distancing function, permitting L2 users to avoid anxiety-provoking materials and to express ideas in their L2 that would be too upsetting in their L1" 
 As can be seen, all these seem to be explaining why we like to switch into a second language and in a way change our personality to distance ourselves from the emotions it would cause in our L1. Now, how does this apply to language learning and teaching? Before I mention the connection, I want to give another example related to language learning and personality. 

I have a Canadian friend who has been living in Turkey for at least 15 years. He has a Turkish wife and  a 10 year old daughter. His knowledge of the Turkish language can be best described as execrable (thanks to Gavin Dudeney for the word). He has always been an amazement to us. Whenever we witness his attempts to speak and understand the language, we try to understand how this is possible after so many years. When we asked him how he explained this "phenomenon", he used to shrug. I asked him again recently before I was doing research for this post. He agreed with my "switching personality" theory and said that he was just too stubborn to switch into this "Turkish" personality. He also describes himself as a reserved person who doesn't like to socialize too much. 
At the other extreme end is another Canadian friend who has been living in Turkey for about 10 years and is also married to a Turkish woman. I met him 7 years ago. His Turkish, even back then, was flawless. Both his pronunciation and knowledge of grammar fascinated me and I wondered how this could have been possible only in 3 years. He said that he just learned it. What kind of a person do you think he is? He is very outgoing, has traveled to nearly every corner of the country on his own, has been invited into homes by Turkish families and sort of slipped into a  Turkish personality.  

Now, how is this relevant to our English classes? It's this question that I ask myself after looking at these thoughts and examples that I have mentioned above: Is it possible that students who resist switching into another personality, a foreign personality one might say, have more difficulty in learning English than the ones who are more open to acquiring foreign thought patterns and personalities? I also want to ask if this might be relevant to students who are more conservative and distant to other cultures (especially Western cultures if English is going to be our example)? In my personal experience, I can easily say that this is true with the students that I have taught and observed. 

How about your students? Are there students in your class who have negative attitudes towards anything Western and therefore reject a "personality" change and consequently end up having trouble learning English?
How about yourself? Do you become Mr. Hyde when you speak English?

Altarriba, J. (2000). “Language processing and memory retrieval in Spanish-English bilinguals”. Spanish 
      Applied Linguistics 4, 215-45.
Altarriba, J. (2003). “Does cariño equal ‘liking’? A theoretical approach to conceptual nonequivalence 
      between languages”. In A. Pavlenko, R. Schrauf & J.-M. Dewaele (eds.), New directions in the study of 
      bilingual memory [= International Journal of Bilingualism 7(3)], 305-22.
Amati-Mehler J., S. Argentieri & J. Canestri (1993). The Babel of the unconscious: Mother tongue and 
      foreign languages in the psychoanalytic dimension. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
Bond, M. & T.-M. Lai (1986). “Embarrassment and code-switching into a second language”. The Journal of 
      Social Psychology 126, 179-86.
Dewaele, Jean-Marc (2004) Blistering barnacles! What language do multilinguals swear in?! Estudios de 
      Sociolinguistica 5 (1), pp. 83-105. ISSN 1576-7418. Gonzalez-Reigosa, F. (1976). “The anxiety 
      arousing effect of taboo words in bilinguals”. In C.D. Spielberger & R. Diaz-Guerrero (eds.), Cross-
      cultural anxiety. Washington, D.C.: Hemisphere, 89-105.
Huston, N. (1999). Nord perdu. Arles: Actes Sud.
Javier, R. & L. Marcos (1989). “The role of stress on the language-independence and code-switching 
      phenomena”. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 18, 449-72.
Javier, R. (1989). “Linguistic considerations in the treatment of bilinguals”. Journal of Psychoanalytic
      Psychology 6, 87-96.
Pavlenko, A. (2002). “Bilingualism and emotions”. Multilingua 21, 45-78.
Santiago-Rivera, A.L. & J. Altarriba (2002). “The role of language in therapy with the Spanish English 
      bilingual client”. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 33, 30-38.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Speech is Silver, Singing is Gold

In my previous (and first) post, I pointed out how a Scottish singer's heavy accent changes radically while singing. My intention was to find out if this accent change was a conscious choice or if it was really difficult to sing with a strong accent. In that post, I also included a study supporting the idea that you can actually sing your accent away. Related to these findings, I also asked whether this would have implications in the classroom when teaching pronunciation, keeping in mind that it might be easier to adopt a more "standard" accent when singing. In the comments, Matt Ledding wrote that he uses a three step process when teaching pronunciation.

The pattern that Matt normally uses is:
  1. singing the rhythm and intonation without the sounds
  2. singing just the vowels
  3. singing the sentence
About this procedure he says:
"Doing that makes it easier to focus on the sounds and I generally perceive a noticeable difference, especially with fossilized sounds, with many students."
 As a result, he wanted "to test his own pattern of practicing pronunciation from an absolute beginner autonomous learner point of view". He took one Turkish sentence from a dialogue and the outcome was this:

I have to say that I admire Matt's patience. He tried a lot and says that he spent 20 minutes repeating "(mis) perceived Turkish sounds" and consequently fossilizing errors.  I can say that there is some kind of a progress through the process, however, all native speakers of Turkish would agree that the outcome is not intelligible (when listened to as an isolated sentence).

So, since my take on the issue was that singing would make it easier to learn the pronunciation of words, I suggested he try a Turkish song to see if this time his pronunciation would improve and become more intelligible. I suggested a song by a famous Turkish pop band called MFÖ. The title of the song is 'Benim Hala Umudum Var", which means "I Still Got Hope". This is what happened:

What happened this time is really surprising. The outcome is something like a miracle for someone who is a complete beginner in Turkish. All words are pronounced correctly, with a little touch of a "foreign accent", but are totally intelligible to a native Turkish speaker. Matt says that he listened to it, paused to write down what he heard (why did he hear differently this time?) and recorded it once (only once!). Even when he speaks the lyrics as a sentence, they are clearly understood by a native Turkish speaker. 

What can we conclude from this experiment? Will the results be the same with other languages and other people? Is there anyone out there who would like to try? It doesn't have to be a Turkish song. You can try with other languages as well but I need volunteers who can recommend short bits of speech in a language and then songs in the same language so that we can compare the results and maybe rate their pronunciation as well.

Turkish native speakers out there, how would you rate Matt's two performances?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Can You Sing That For Me, Please?

It has been a while since I have written a post and this is going to be my first post in this blog. My other blog (Te@ch me Tech) mainly consists of tutorials and tech tips, however, in this one, I want to write more about ELT and other issues that occupy my fragile mind. I haven't had the chance to write about IATEFL Glasgow and now I think it is about time. Glasgow was 5 days of conferencing mayhem and I think it was the ultimate ELT event. I will not talk about what I saw at the conference (there is plenty of content here), however, I want to write about my experience as an English teacher in an "English Speaking" country.  Before Glasgow, I had never been in an English Speaking country and honestly speaking, I was happy to know that finally, after travelling in many European countries, I wouldn't have to ask people if they spoke English (and trust me, speaking English to the natives in many European countries is still a problem).  Well, Glasgow did not turn out the way I imagined! In Glasgow, people are speaking a variation of English. I thought I was good in understanding accents (I have watched all Guy Ritchie movies and Trainspotting  many many times), but,  I failed. It took me a while to understand the taxi drivers' questions "Whaur ur ye frae?" or "Ur ye also gonnae th' leid conference?". And questions like "Whit woods ye loch tae bevvy loove?" at pubsAfter a while, I got embarrassed about repeating "sorrys?" and "come agains?". Once again, it felt like I was in a non-English speaking country.

All of this reminded me of the Scottish Rock/Blues/Country (?!) band Texas and their lead singer Sharleen Spiteri. When I was a student at the university, I used to listen to them. They were a nice blend of pop and rock and this is what I would hear (and still hear)You don't have to listen to all of it, the first minute will do:

Everything is alright, isn't it? You can understand almost all the lyrics  "and when I get that feeling, I can no longer run, I can no longer hide, no no no" and so on (here it gets too romantic for me!). However, now I want you to watch and listen to THIS (first 2 minutes will do):

What is going on here? What happened to that sweet ENGLISH singing Sharleen? (noticed how she pronounces "Texas"??). What's more, I think  at one point, even one of the hosts looks like he is concentrating really really hard to understand what she is saying. 

Is there an explanation to this phenomenon? There are many. One might be that the singer is intentionally adopting a 'clearer' accent so that people will understand what she is singing about. Another 'outrageous' explanation is that one simply cannot sing in a Scottish accent! A quick search on Google shows that the patterns of an accent in speech cannot be retained in singing (great explanation here) If that is the case, would I have been luckier if I had asked the drivers and bartenders to sing to me?

How about using singing in the classroom to help students of English lose their foreign accents or work on their pronunciation accuracy? One study suggests that this is possible. In a study called "Singing your accent away, and why it works", Hagen, Kerkhoff & Gussenhoven (from the Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands; Queen Mary University of London, UK) have shown that it is possible to lose your foreign accent when you sing. They made eleven Dutch secondary school children sing and speak the lyrics of a number of popular English songs. At the end of the study, their pronunciation accuracy was rated significantly higher by  English native speakers.  

I haven't had the chance to try this in the classroom since I am teaching MBA students and singing at that age requires a certain degree of self-confidence, but I wonder if anyone out there has tried this in the classroom? Do you think it would help? What kind of an activity would you use?

Hagen, M., Kerkhoff, J. &  Gussenhoven, C. (2011) 'Singing your accent away and why it works' ICPhS XVII, 799-802