Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Footballers' Foreign Accent Syndrome?

You might have seen that Joey Barton has been filmed speaking English in what sounds very much like a French accent (he's playing for a French team at the moment). It's hilarious, obvs, and gives us all another chance to snigger at Steve McLaren, who spoke English with a Dutch accent when he went to the Netherlands.

We can ask why they might do this. It's likely to be at least partly because they're surrounded by other people speaking English with a French or Dutch accent. This is especially true for McLaren, living in a country where everyone speaks English, but also for Barton, because in the football world there are so many players from all over the world I imagine English is something of a lingua franca in the dressing room. They're bound to be a little bit affected by this and pick up something of the accent.

Another factor is probably that they both have fairly strong regional accents (Merseyside for Barton, and something that sounds like Yorkshire for McLaren), and they will have made an effort to speak more slowly and clearly to non-native speakers. They are therefore not speaking in a completely natural way, and might pick up different mannerisms accordingly.

You know what else we might ask? Are they really speaking in French/Dutch accents at all, that's what. There's a condition called 'foreign accent syndrome', usually a result of brain damage, which causes a person to speak in what sounds like a foreign accent. Family members may be convinced that the sufferer has a New York, Eastern European or Chinese accent, and this can cause problems: one woman in Norway had great difficulties when she began speaking in a German accent in the 1940s. However, it's not actually a specific foreign accent, but simply difficulty in speaking. The accent is never one that listeners are very familiar with, and this is crucial. The brain damage can cause particular problems with speech, which the listener hears as some or other accent. Wikipedia suggests that an American who normally has a rhotic accent (pronounces the 'r' sounds in car park) might have difficulty pronouncing 'r' and therefore omit it. This might sound like a Boston accent to a listener because non-rhoticity is a very salient feature of a stereotypical Boston accent. So is there some other feature of their speech that we're hearing as a foreign accent?

I've had a listen to both, and what follows is entirely unscientific speculation and waffle. You can very definitely hear their original accents in both cases. What is noticeable to me is that they both use very few contractions, saying we are instead of we're, for instance. They also speak slowly, perhaps as a result of the afore-mentioned concession to non-native speakers or possibly even interpreters, in the case of Barton's press conference. I think that some of the filler sounds Barton uses do seem a bit French, but that's because the vowel sounds used in er and similar noises are different from the standard southern English er, and it might well be the same as is used in Merseyside er. Likewise for some of the vowels in his words. His intonation and prosody sound quite Frenchified too: his fairly constant stress placement, for instance, differentiates French from English quite markedly. But it could also be a result of slower speech than he's used to. The frequent final rising intonation he uses is a feature of a Merseyside accent but might well sound French if one was listening in the expectation of hearing one.

I'm just not convinced there's much in it. I think that a combination of some minor changes in their accent and a bit of pareidolia on the listeners' part has made this into something more than it is. One case of foreign accent syndrome involved a woman who went from Geordie to Jamaican, French Canadian, Italian or Slovak. Those are not similar to each other, and there is known (among Geordies, at least) to be some similarity between Geordie and Jamaican. As further evidence, this video is of McLaren supposedly speaking with a Dutch accent, and many of the commenters hear only unremarkable 'northern English'. You make your own mind up.

Wikipedia has this to say on Barton's case, though probably not for much longer:
Barton is now currently under examination by medical professionals and although they are uncertain, the cause of Barton's condition is believed to have been caused when he used both Heads and Shoulders and Aussie Hair Shine Shampoo at the same time. However, this is only an early prognosis.

So perfect they brought out a slightly different one

I received one of Apple's regular email exhortations to buy their stuff as presents, as if I spend that much on people who aren't me. It had this as its subject header:

I'm not sure that's possible. I mean, there is of course the possibility for there to be more than one perfect thing in the world, but not two such similar things, surely. It's reasonable to say that a rhubarb & custard sweet is perfect, in that it's a perfect example of its type of thing (a sweet, or a boiled sweet). It's also reasonable to say that a Moleskine notebook is perfect, and these two things don't conflict - they're different types of things. But if you say that rhubarb and custard is the perfect boiled sweet, it's impossible to improved upon it. You couldn't add a bit of vanilla flavour and say 'now it's even better!', not if it was perfect to start with. You can't improve upon perfection.

Similarly, if one of the ipads is perfect, I don't think the other one can be. The small one may be perfect for you, and the big one perfect for me, but that makes both of them slightly imperfect in some way (the small one is not perfect for me, nor the big one for you).

Or can it be? In fact, people use perfect in a somewhat looser way than I've used it here. This is a review from TripAdvisor:

Clearly, this person thinks you can improve on perfection, and there are a gazillion more examples just the same. I still think both ipads can't be perfect though.

I'll have the larger one, if anyone's thinking of getting me one for Christmas.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Getting overexcited and swearing

We all know that linguists love to swear and lecturers love to shock their new students, so yesterday in my introductory lecture on morphology, I had the students try to work out the rules of expletive infixation. That's when you do this:
Now obviously the students found this completely hilarious and had a whale of a time swearing at the tops of their voices in the lecture. At one point I though the neighbours might come round to complain.

Importantly, though, as well as swearing a lot, they actually got on and did the exercise, and did it well. It stands to reason that the best way to get them excited about and interested in a language data exercise is to make it be about something they find interesting in the first place. Earlier in the week, they'd had to do the same type of exercise, working out how noun pluralisation works in Armenian and Spanish, and they did not like that so much. They did it, and made a decent job of it, but they clearly didn't find it exciting in the same way.

Partly this is natural, but a true linguist also gets excited about noun pluralisation rules. We find it REALLY COOL that there are rules about how this stuff works, that native speakers of a language don't know about consciously, but do perfectly subconsciously. We love to find out what the rules are and try to understand this magical language ability that allows us to communicate with each other so effectively. The rules for doing language could be anything in the world, but they aren't! They're consistently of particular types, and some other types of rule are just never ever found anywhere.

I notice the same issue when I give talks to non-syntacticians. What I'm presenting is obviously fantastically exciting stuff - there's this real issue that is there, and needs explaining - and yet it doesn't seem to excite everyone in the same way. How can we get across that this is really fascinating? Why doesn't everyone appreciate just how amazingly brilliant language is?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Well, that's what he said...

On the music news on today's Radcliffe & Maconie 6Music show, the music news correspondent Elizabeth Alker was telling us about the Killers' gig being stopped halfway through. She said that from the start, the singer Brandon Flowers hadn't looked well and...
He started drinking what he said was a Chinese herbal remedy.
This caused Radcliffe and Maconie to ask her what it was then, if it wasn't a Chinese herbal remedy.

What? She just said it was!

See, what's happened here is that she explicitly said that the drink was a herbal remedy, but she implicitly communicated that she had reason to think that it wasn't. We can see this from R&M's response, and from the fact that the conversation continued and they said things like this:
Which you clearly think was a lie!
What reason have you got to doubt him?
It's handy, this implicature business. We can say all kinds of things without really saying them. There are two things interacting here, I think: contrastive stress and Grice's Maxim of Quantity.

The Maxim of Quantity is one of Grice's conversational maxims. These are principles that all speakers ought to abide by in order to keep conversation flowing smoothly. It gets interesting when speakers don't abide by them (which is a lot of the time), because we go through some complicated processes in order to keep the conversation from being derailed. We always assume that the person we're talking to is not flouting the maxims, so if they seem to, we work out a way in which they aren't. So if someone gives the apparently irrelevant response B to A's question, A will work out a possible meaning that makes it relevant and infer the intended meaning:

A: Do you want to go for pizza?
B: I'm on a diet.

B's being on a diet isn't an answer to the question, but A can work out that B means 'no' by assuming that B is being relevant, and therefore must be answering the question, and that the information provided must somehow have a bearing on the invitation. A works out how being on a diet might relate to eating pizza and fills in the gaps.

Here, Alkerpops (as she's known) seems to be giving too much information. She doesn't need to tell us that Flowers said it was a Chinese herbal remedy; we can work that out ourselves. By telling us too much, we have to assume that she's told us too much for a reason, and that it must be significant that he said that's what it was.

Secondly, she stressed the pronoun he. One job of stress in English is to contrast things. So you can say:
Sam wasn't the ring bearer, Frodo was. 
You're contrasting Sam with Frodo, in this case. If you don't mention two things, you can still be contrasting a thing, but you're contrasting it with either something from earlier in the discourse, or alternatively an implied contrasted thing. In our example above, he can only contrast with other people (things have to contrast with things of the same type), so she's implying that other people would say that it was something else:
He said it was a Chinese herbal remedy, but I think it was something a bit stronger. 
So we get almost the exact opposite meaning from what she said, with no difficulty, almost never any misunderstanding, and very consistent intuitions.

Sunday, 11 November 2012


There's an article on the Guardian today (one of several recently) about free online university courses. These are offered by companies like Coursera, Udacity, and EdX, and the content is provided by 'proper' universities. They don't charge, and they allow thousands and thousands of people, from all over the world, to follow a module from a respected institution, without having to be in the country or paying the fees. Free education for all!

Obviously there's lots of practical issues, about all aspects of this. These thousands of people can't have their work marked by a human, so it only works well for subjects that can be marked by a computer (unless you go the crowdsourcing route, as one of the pioneers of this method suggests). It's only possible to offer this for free because the academics are paid by universities which are funded in part by students who do pay fees. You miss out on the other aspects of being a student. Et cetera.

The biggest difference between this method and actually attending university is of course the quality - it's never going to be the same watching videos as it is having a real human expert to talk to and learn from, and face-to-face class time. But there are some aspects of it which are worth looking at. One obvious benefit is that people who are otherwise unable to attend university or pay Open University fees can still get access to university-level education. For them, it doesn't matter so much that it's not quite as good as the 'real' thing, because anything is better than nothing. If it became the normal way to learn, well, then it's not up to scratch. But is that right? Is it OK to say 'anything is better than nothing so it's all right that it's not as good'? The pioneers of this learning paradigm have an ideal in mind of free  education for all. Those people who can't pay for university or can't physically attend should have the same opportunity as those who can, assuming equal ability.

That's another thing - there's no entrance requirements for these courses. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because entrance requirements are only really useful if you need to limit intake, and you don't when it's online (a Massive Online Open Course: MOOC).

One aspect I like is similar to how Open University works: you can just take one module if you want to, rather than a whole degree. With OU you can build them up into a degree or diploma, which is not yet the case with MOOCs, but give them time. It means that a person who just needs or wants an introduction to a subject can have it in a structured way with no obligation.

Most interestingly for me, at the moment, is the implication it has on the way we teach in universities. This MOOC thing allows a potentially lot better use of class time. At the moment, we give lectures and seminars. Lectures vary from lecturer to lecturer, from a simple stand at the front of the room and read out your notes, to a more interactive experience for the students when they have to do more than just sit and listen. Lectures have been around a long time and they've never gone away, partly because you need to be able to impart a lot of information to a lot of people at once and it's the most economical way to do that. You could tell them to go and read, but what do they read? Most of the time you need to explain the complicated stuff that written in books and journals, and even introductory textbooks just seem to make more sense if someone explains it to you. The reading is supplementary to the lecture, giving the student more information which they can go and understand after having the 50-minute explanation of the basics. But all the same, lectures seem slightly wasteful.

Even if you try and make them as interesting as possible, and make that there is some benefit to actually being there rather than just reading the slides, an alternative is to combine the MOOC idea with the current system. What if we did video lectures, and then used the class time for something else? Explaining difficult concepts, working through problems, that sort of thing. Of course the extra 50% teaching time and preparation would need to be factored into teaching loads, or teaching hours adjusted, but we can do that. Many classrooms are equipped with the technology to record a lecture, or with YouTube we can do it from our desks. Sites like TED, and people like RSAnimate, have shown that people are really super keen to watch videos in order to learn stuff. We might as well embrace it before it overtakes us.