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Hard to Understand, Harder to Remember

Struggling to understand someone else talking can be a taxing mental activity. A wide range of studies have already documented that individuals with hearing loss or who are listening to degraded speech – for example, over a bad phone line or in a loud room – have greater difficulty remembering and processing the spoken information than individuals who heard more clearly.

Now researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are investigating the relatively unexplored question of whether listening to accented speech similarly affects the brain’s ability to process and store information. Their preliminary results suggest that foreign-accented speech, even when intelligible, may be slightly more difficult to recall than native speech.

The researchers presented their findings at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, held May 18-22, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Listening to accented speech is different than other more widely studied forms of “effortful listening” – think loud cocktail parties – because the accented speech itself deviates from listener expectations in (often) systematic ways, said Kristin Van Engen, a post-doctoral research associate in the linguistics program at Washington University in St. Louis.

How the brain processes information delivered in an accent has relevance to real-world settings like schools and hospitals. “If you’re working hard to understand a professor or doctor with a foreign accent, are you going to have more difficulty encoding the information you’re learning in memory?” Van Engen asked. The answer is not really known, and the issue has received relatively little attention in either the scientific literature on foreign accent processing or the literature on effortful listening, she said.

To begin to answer her question, Van Engen and her colleagues tested the ability of young-adult native English speakers to store spoken words in their short-term memory. The test subjects listened to lists of English words, voiced either with a standard American accent or with a pronounced, but still intelligible Korean accent. After a short time the lists would randomly stop and the listeners were asked to recall the last three words they had heard.

All the volunteer listeners selected for the study were unfamiliar with a Korean accent.

The listeners’ rate of recall for the most recently heard words was similarly high with both accents, but Van Engen and her team found that volunteers remembered the third word back only about 70 percent of the time when listening to a Korean accent, compared to about 80 percent when listening to a standard American accent.

All of the words spoken with the accent had been previously tested to ensure that they were understandable before they were used in the experiment, Van Engen said. The difference in recall rates might be due to the brain using some of its executive processing regions, which are generally used to focus attention and integrate and store information, to understand words spoken in an unfamiliar accent, Van Engen said.

The results are preliminary, and Van Engen and her team are working to gather data on larger sets of listeners, as well as to test other brain functions that require processing spoken information, such as listening to a short lecture and later recalling and using the concepts discussed. She said work might also be done to explore whether becoming familiar with a foreign accent would lessen the observed difference in memory functions.

Van Engen hopes the results might help shape strategies for both listeners and foreign accented speakers to better communicate and ensure that the information they discussed is remembered. For example, it might help listeners to use standard strategies such as looking at the person speaking and asking for repetition. Accented speakers might be able to improve communication by talking more slowing or working to match their intonation, rhythm and stress patterns more closely to that of native speakers, Van Engen said.

Superlinguo in an announcement that was @wuglife


In an announcement that was reported without a shred of mirativity, Hillary Clinton threw her hat in the ring for the 2016 USA Presidential race. Her campaign has a strong online presence, and there was a lot of discussion about the announcement.

Much has been made of her campaign logo, with many not taking to the simple colours and H-for-Hillary theme. I think it’s great - not because I’m a US political pundit, or know much about professional branding, but because it elegantly represents a fundamental metaphor in English.

The red arrow points to the right, because we think of future as moving from left to right. This is not the only metaphor we have for time moving through space - we also think of the past as behind and future in front. This is more ubiquitous in our speech - with a whole way of talking about language that’s future forward:

I’ve put that weekend behind me

I’ll get to it tomorrow

I’m looking forward to Christmas

Future as rightwards is less likely to show up in our speech, although it does show up in our gestures, and in this logo. It’s very much influenced by our writing system. These aren’t the only ways to think about time. Chinese speakers also talk about time as a horizontal, but also express time as vertical - with the past above the future below - also modelled on writing system direction. In Game of Thrones the conlang Valyrian talks about time as horizontal with past below and future above.

These metaphors are important because they may actually have an effect on  our cognition. I can’t believe we haven’t talked about it on Superlinguo before, given that we’re massive fans of Lera Boroditsky’s work (she has some good general audience articles on her website as well as her research).

Allthingslinguistic centre embedding new @wuglife


Centre embedding: New speech disorder linguists contracted discovered!

A most troubling article from SpecGram. To assist in understanding the nature of this problem, I have taken the liberty of drawing a simplfied syntax tree of one of the most perplexing sentences: “linguists linguists linguists sent examined are highly contagious”. The non-pathological version would read something like: Linguists sent (other) linguists to examine the infected linguists. Unfortunately, the examining linguists were themselves also highly contagious. 

Centre embedding is an odd phenomenon that is fine with just one level (“new speech disorder linguists contracted discovered”) but gets really hard to understand as soon as you do more of it. So it’s not actually ungrammatical, but it’s really hard to hold a sentence with two or more levels of centre embedding in your memory. On the other hand, we can easily do many many levels of non-central embedding (“I said that Jill heard that Mary saw that Alice went to the store”). 

I used the free basic syntax tree generator phpSyntaxTree to create the diagram, and the input code is as follows: [S  [NP linguists [S [NP linguists [S [NP linguists] [VP sent]]] [VP examined ]]] [VP are highly contagious ]]. If you want to play around with it, see if you can figure out how to add Ns and Vs to the tops of all the nouns and verbs in the tree above. 

Oh my goodness, I love center embedding!

Two more things that are really cool:

Doubly-embedded sentences are typically almost impossible to understand, as mentioned above. But not always! And it varies (very slightly) between languages. In English, this is a REALLY HARD sentence:

(1) The students the teacher Alex knows taught went to the movies last week.

And it means:

(2) Alex knows the teacher taught the students who went to the movies last week.

But this sentence is somewhat okay:

(3) The students that the teacher I know taught went to the movies last week.

They have identical syntactic structure (as far as I’m concerned!) but one sounds better than the other. I won’t say it's easy or even good, but there is definitely a clear benefit of using the pronoun “I” in (3). Why? Well, we don’t really know, but one suggestion is that pronouns (and specifically ones that refer to people who are present in the conversation, like “you” or “I”) are somehow semantically light, or otherwise less costly to store in our memory.

The other cool thing about center embedding is that in English (but not German), leaving out one of the three verbs in a doubly embedded sentence actually makes it sound better, even though it is then ungrammatical.

(4) The students (that) the teacher (that) Alex knows went to the movies last week.

This sentence actually doesn’t make sentence because it’s missing the verb “taught”. But somehow, English speakers tend to say it makes more sense. This could be because that clause sandwiched between the outer one and the inner one (the teacher … taught) is less salient or important to understanding the sentence as a whole. The students went to the movies, and I know someone, so who cares about the teacher and who that teacher taught?

In any case, center embedded sentences are AWESOME!! Let me know if you have any questions about them!

From grammaticalization theory and data id @wuglife

From: Grammaticalization – Theory and Data

I’d try to translate what all these technical terms mean, but.

Basically, language is so cool that it changes in ways that actually can be pretty similar across languages. And basically, sometimes when we end a sentence with “but” or “and” (or maybe, as I suggest “or”), we’re actually very specifically ending the sentence, even though these words typically indicate the middle of a conjunction. I only have access to the limited google books version, but if you’re interested in getting the whole story, it was published by John Benjamins Publishing this year. There are some other really cool looking chapters, too!

Linguistsagainsthumanity we received the above @wuglife


We received the above submission from t-o-t-o-r-i-a that really made us laugh and inspired us to hold the first ever LAH contest!!

Your challenge is to create the funniest combination of LAH cards.  Take a look through our archive — pick one black card, and then choose the appropriate number of white cards to answer the question or fill in the blanks, just like you’re playing CAH.

To enter, visit our submit page (NOT our ask page) and complete the form as follows:

  1. The words “contest submission” in the title section of the form
  2. YOU MUST BE LOGGED INTO TUMBLR TO ENTER.  Submissions are limited to ONE per person.  This way, we can keep track of usernames/url’s.  We won’t accept your submission if you’re not logged in.
  3. A real working e-mail address so we can contact you if you win (we won’t publish or share it, we promise)
  4. The full text of your chosen black card (e.g., “All linguistics students should learn about ______.”)
  5. The full text of your chosen white card(s).  If your submission involves more than one white card, please put the text of each on separate lines just to help us out.

We will accept submissions starting…. NOW!  Keep ‘em coming until midnight ET on Friday, July 18.  (Seriously, we won’t accept them after that.)  We’ll turn them into images, and post them on the morning of Saturday, July 19.  Voting will run through midnight ET on Tuesday, July 22.  Whichever submission receives the most notes will win!

PRIZES!  Nothing too exciting, since we’re just three broke college kids who run a Tumblr, but here’s what we’ve got:

  • Third prize: we’ll post a link to a (non-political, non-religious) nonprofit/charity of your choice
  • Second prize: third prize PLUS a T-shirt featuring an LAH card of your choice
  • First prize: third prize PLUS second prize PLUS the Chinese edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire signed by the three of us because we like to think we’re celebrities

Good luck!  Can’t wait to see what you guys come up with!

With love,

The LAH Team

Allthingslinguistic distribution of english @wuglife


Distribution of English letters toward beginning, middle, and end of words


Source that actually works

The commentary at the source is really interesting. A few quotes: 

The data is from the entire Brown corpus in the Natural Language Toolkit. It’s a smaller and out-of-date corpus, but it’s open source and easy to obtain. I repeated the analysis with COHA, the Corpus of Historical American English, a well-curated, proprietary data set from Brigham Young University for which I have a license, and the only differences were in rare letters like “z” or “x”.

I used a corpus rather than a dictionary so that the visualization would be weighted towards true usage. In other words, the most common word in English, “the” influences the graphs far more than, for example, “theocratic”. […]

I’ve had many “oh, yeah” moments looking over the graphs. For example, words almost never begin with “x”, but it’s quite common as the second letter. There’s a little hump near the beginning of “u” that’s caused by its proximity to “q”, which is most common at the beginning of a word. When you remove “q” from the dataset, the hump disappears. “F” occurs toward the extremes, especially in prepositions (“for”, “from”, “of”, “off”) but rarely just before the middle. 

A final thought: the most common word in the English language is “the”, which makes up about 6% of most corpuses (sorry, corpora). But according to these graphs, the most representative word is “toe”.

And someone else made a French version in response. I’d love to see a version in IPA for English as well. When I’ve played IPA Scrabble I noticed, for example, that /ʒ/ is most common between vowels. 

Jessehimself what a neat set of maps @wuglife



What a neat set of maps!

Allthingslinguistic the economist has a heavily @wuglife


The Economist has a heavily sarcastic map up pointing out what national boundaries might look like if everyone adopted Putin’s attitude of linguistic imperialism and some of the many reasons why this would be a terrible idea:

WHEN Vladimir Putin justified his annexation of Crimea on the ground that he owed protection to Russian speakers everywhere, this newspaper took a dim view of his line of argument, pointing out that since linguistic borders do not match those of states, it would lead to chaos. We now recognise that this approach to international relations betrayed a deplorable conservatism. Since we pride ourselves on pushing the boundaries in search of a way to clamber out of the box and reach the summit of blue-sky thinking, we reckoned we should grasp the nettle of radical Putinism and run with it. […]

A unified Arabia would stretch from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. There might be the odd squabble between Sunnis, Shias, Christians and adherents of archaic notions of nation; but united by a common tongue, the Arabs would be sure to get along fine, especially if they teamed up to smite the Persian-speakers on the other side of the Gulf. The two Koreas would become one, which might be a good thing—or not, depending on which system prevailed.

Geoff Pullum on Language Log also notes some problems:

Switzerland would have to disappear completely, clearly, but new nations like Basqueland and Kurdistan would obviously have to arise.

The idea is, of course, political lunacy. Whoever started the reunification of India, Pakistan, and Bangla Desh would probably be creating a nuclear war rather than a peaceful Hindi-Urdu-speaking friendship zone. And one by one the speakers of smaller languages (the vast majority of the roughly 7,000 languages on the planet) would start declaring independence or seizing pieces of their neighbours’ land.

I’m not sure how anyone can recognize that civil wars and revolutions exist and at the same time think that a common language is a guarantor of harmony (although it’s also a stated goal of Esperanto). Sometimes a common language just makes it really easy to communicate how much you don’t get along. 

Not to mention that Ukrainian was literally banned during the rule of the USSR, so the presence of Russian in Ukraine is part of its oppressive history. Thus, defining the borders of political nations based on language is effectively a feedback loop of oppression or occupation.

Moreover, much of Ukraine does not speak Russian at all. In fact, there are areas of Russian in which the dominant languages aren’t even Indo-European.

(Full disclosure: as a descendant of Russian Jews and Ukrainians, I do not have a fully objective view of the events in Ukraine.)

Sanford sturt 2002 depth of processing in @wuglife

Sanford & Sturt (2002). Depth of processing in language comprehension: not noticing the evidence (pdf). TRENDS in Cognitive Science. Vol 6 (9), 382-386.

I just wanted to share this with you all. If this sounds interesting, the paper is a nice, short read and a good overview of the issues at hand in understanding syntactic and semantic representation during sentence processing.

Basically, this example is really fun. The first sentence is:

  • No head injury is too trivial to be ignored.

This typically would mean:

  • All head injuries are non-trivial and should never be ignored.

But looking closely at the grammatical relations between the words, it actually means (for some definitions of “means”):

  • All head injuries are sufficiently trivial to be ignored.

So the argumentation here is that we read the original sentence and only somewhat specify the relations between words. In doing so, we construct a meaning that conforms to what we expect (head injuries are serious business). The way we can do so while ignoring the actually structure of the sentence is to never actually fully construct the sentence’s structure! On closer readings, we may do so, but if we just saw or heard this sentence in passing (like most sentences we encounter), we would be unlikely to get the “technically correct” interpretation right away.

This is an example of the Moses Illusion. In the Moses Illusion, we read or hear a sentence like:

  • Moses brought two of each type of animal on the ark.
    True or false?

And sometimes we think TRUE! before realizing that it was, in fact, Noah with the ark. What seems to be happening in these sentences is that we construct a partial representation of the meanings of the words (Moses is a male biblical figure who had an adventure with lots of scary water), and if some portion of those features match our expectations, we roll with it. (After all, Noah is also a male biblical figure who had an adventure with lots of scary water.) Although plenty of people do detect the error in the Moses Illusion right away, the detection rate isn’t 100%. It gets higher when the mistake (“Moses”) shares fewer features with the “correct” version. So “Adam” has a higher detection rate in this sentence, because his adventures don’t notably include water.

So the moral of the story is that it seems like people are low-accuracy listeners (and readers), because we use the energy to consume large quantities of language. This means that sometimes we save energy by taking short cuts, which can backfire. But that’s just how the cognitive system works, so don’t worry. (Plenty of people “don’t see the gorilla”.)

Allthingslinguistic dustwindbun so hey @wuglife



So hey allthingslinguistic and atheshya the wug lady. I was at Walmart and I found this bandanna that looks like wugs, and I thought you should know about it.

This totally looks like wugs. I need a tablecloth or something made out of this.

Matching varsity jackets!

Fromkin and rodman an introduction to @wuglife

(fromkin and rodman, an introduction to language)

(very VERY large .pdf file of the source text!)

This is a good time to remember that a lot of prescriptive rules aren’t just wrong because language “shouldn’t be prescribed”, but because they are made up, artificial rules devised to separate the socioeconomic classes by white men in the Latin (or sometimes French) fandom. Lowth’s introduction of shibboleths to English grammar was and is a tool of social oppression. Don’t judge people by their grammar!

Superlinguo wnycs excellent on the @wuglife


WNYC’s excellent On the Media program recently posed this very good question:

When you read tweets or Instagram posts, do you say or hear the @ symbol in your head as “at”?

For example, which of these sounds right to you: “an @Guardian article” or “a @Guardian​ article”?

This is truly a question for the modern age. Read On the Media’s response here, including a bunch of thoughts from Twitter users:

For the record, I don’t hear or say the @ symbol when I read tweets, so the use of “an” sounds really strange to me.

Side thought: Maybe we just need a better label for the @ symbol? Lauren lamented English’s lack of this very thing back in 2012 here on the Superlinguo blog.

Maptitude1 this map shows the languages and @wuglife


This map shows the languages and dialects of China.

To those who celebrate it happy easter here are @wuglife

To those who celebrate it, Happy Easter! Here are some etymologies for your Easter basket, from Etymonline.

All languages of europe are represented on this @wuglife

This is a map of European languages, prioritizing minority languages and dialects. The linked site allows you to explore it in a lot more detail!

Heads up tumblinguists who are also redditors @wuglife

Heads up, tumblinguists who are also redditors! Famous sociolinguist Walt Wolfram will be giving an AMA (“ask me anything”) next Wednesday! Spread the word!

Geminator 2048 play 2048 with all your favorite @wuglife

Geminator 2048!

Play 2048 with all your favorite phonemes!

Jazzmoth this is a wug s6da im at a @wuglife


This Is A Wug (s6,dA)

I’m at a conference today, so I will have some cool things to tell you about soon. For now, have a wug!