Language evolution

Some interesting experiments on language evolution are being undertaken in the University of Edinburgh’s Language Evolution and Computation Research Unit, and one thing they’ve found is that some aspects of language can develop in an afternoon.

They believe that language evolves culturally through being learned and used by people. They have demonstrated aspects of this process with computer simulations and with an experiment with real people. For the experiment they used pictures of alien fruit with names in a made up language which the participants were asked to memorise. They were then tested on what they could remember and their answers were used with the second group of participants, and so on.

The first participants found it very difficult to learn and remember the words, but with each subsequent ‘generation’ it became easier to learn them and they developed regularities in their structure, and eventually the participants were able to understand words they’d never seen before.

The researchers believe that many aspects of languages can arise through the evolutionary process of cultural transmission and do not need to be genetically encoded – the brain provides scaffolding for language but not necessarily all the specific details.

Language acquisition

According to a study at UCLA, reported on EurekaAlert!, young children acquiring language benefit most from conversations. Reading them stories and talking to them are also helpful, but two-sided conversations have much stronger effects on their language development.

A study of language use in 275 families looked at the affects of conversation, adult monologueing, reading aloud and watching TV. It found that the one with the greatest positive effect on language development was conversation, which had up to six times more benefit than the other activities, while watching TV had neither positive nor negative effects.

The more children take part in conversations, the more opportunities they have to learn from their mistakes and use new words. The interactions of conversation are also important for social, emotional and cognitive development.

Transcribing conversations

This week I’ve been transcribing the conversations and interviews I recorded while in the Isle of Man. So far I’ve done about an hour’s worth of transcription, which comes out as just over ten thousand words. I have another four hours or so of recordings, and hope to finish transcribing them this week. Then I’ll start writing up my findings. I probably have too much information, but that’s better than too little.

One thing that’s struck me is how disjointed conversations can appear when you write them down. The are loads of repetitions, utterances are often loosely connected with conjunctions like and, so, but or because, they go off on tangents, and often tail off without … Many utterances only make sense in context, and lots of bits can be omitted if the people involved share some common knowledge. There’s also no shortage of interruptions and interjections, and people often finish off one another’s sentences, especially if they know each other well. When you’re speaking you don’t necessarily notice this as much, unless you’re particularly looking out for it.

While it is possible to talk in coherent, well-formed sentences without notes or a script, that doesn’t seem to be how most people talk.

Manx language

I’m on the Isle of Man at the moment doing some research for my dissertation on the revival of the Manx (Gaelic) language. I’m staying in Douglas (Doolish), the island’s capital, and plan to explore other parts of the island – it’s partly a holiday for me as well as a way to collect data.

One of the things I’m investigating is the use of Manx in public. On the ferry from Liverpool they used the Manx for good morning, moghrey mie, a few times in announcements, though that was the only Manx I heard yesterday. I also found some leaflets with collections of useful Manx phrases at the ferry terminal, including some with translations in French, German and Spanish.

When exploring Douglas today I noticed quite a few English/Manx bilingual street signs, and that most government departments, and some shops and other businesses have English and Manx names. So the public visibility of the language is quite high, but you only hear it spoken at certain times and in certain places, which is similar to the situation with Irish in Dublin. For example, today I sat in on a Manx conversation class that takes place every Tuesday lunchtime in a local pub. It was the first time I’d heard live Manx conversation, and somewhat to my surprise, I could understand almost everything they said, which is encouraging. My knowledge of Irish and Scottish Gaelic certainly helps.

Tomorrow I’ll be visiting the Manx medium primary school and talking to some of the teachers. I discovered today that most of the kids there only speak Manx in the school – outside school and at home the speak mainly or entirely in English, except in a few Manx-speaking families. I’ll find out more about this tomorrow.


The other day I came across an interesting article on efforts to keep the Romansh language alive. Romansh or Romansch, which you can hear in last week’s language quiz, is a Romance language spoken mainly in the Swiss Canton of Graubuenden (Grischun/Grigione/Grissons) by about 60,000 people.

There appears to be mixed views on the language – some people are very enthusiastic about the language and do everything they can to encourage its use, others see the language as a handicap.

One significant problem is that Romansh speakers can’t agree which of the five varieties of Romansh should be taught in schools. Lia Rumantscha, the organisation that promotes the language, would like to see Rumantsch Grischun, a standard written form of the language, used in all schools by next year. Other people would prefer to continue using their local varieties of Romansh in schools.

According to a book I was reading yesterday, Sustaining linguistic diversity: endangered and minority languages and language varieties, there have been similar problems in Ireland with the government wanting a standard form of Irish taught in schools, while people in Irish-speaking areas (gealtachtaí) would prefer to use their local varieties of the language.

Research projects

Chinese Englishes

One of my classmates at university is doing a research project on mutual intelligibility between varieties of English spoken in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the UK.

It involves listening to recordings of these varieties of English and answering simple questions. The recordings are divided into five sections, each lasting less than 15 minutes, which you can listen to at any time. There’s also a questionnaire to complete.

If you come from one of these places and are willing to help, please go to one of the following pages:

Listening task for native speakers of English
Listening task for native speakers of other languages

Quantifier Intuitions

Here’s another project you could maybe help with: a researcher from the University of Massachusetts Amherst but temporarily based at Bangor University is doing a study exploring the different meanings the words like, all, each, and every have in everyday life, and exploring their effect on the mathematics performance of children with different language and dialect backgrounds.

This involves completing this online questionnaire (43 questions).


I handed in my last essay today, so that’s pretty much the end of the taught part of my course and I can now concentrate on my dissertation. It’s a great relief to get all the assignments out of the way after spending what seems like ages on them. Fortunately I don’t have any exams this semester. The course seems to have gone really quickly and I’ve learned a lot of interesting and useful things. The areas I’ve found most interesting have been phonetics, bilingualism and speech and language disorders.

I plan to spend the last two weeks of June on the Isle of Man gathering information for my dissertation, learning some more Manx, and having a bit of a holiday. The last time I was on the island was about 30 years ago when I went there on a day trip from primary school, and I’m looking forward to going back. I’ve started making contact with a number of Manx speakers and hope to meet as many of them as possible when I’m on the island.

Are there any Manx speakers or learners who read this blog?

Vel Gaelgeyryn erbee lhaih yn blog shoh?

Foreign accents

At the moment I’m writing an essay on the acquisition of foreign pronunciation. There seems to be a widespread belief that people who start learning a language at an early age are more likely to speak it with a native accent, while those who learn languages as adults tend to speak them with foreign accents. The essay is exploring whether this is true, and what factors contribute to the acquisition of native-like pronunciation.

While there’s plenty of evidence indicating that the younger you start learning a language, the more native-like your pronunciation will be, there are exceptions to this – some adults manage to acquire native-like pronunciation in foreign languages, while not all children do so. Other factors that seem important include the length of time you’ve spent in a country where the language is spoken, the amount of exposure you get to the language, how much you use your first language, whether you have a talent for oral mimicry, and how important it is for you to speak the language like a native. Other factors don’t seem to be as important.

In my case, I aim to speak languages with as little foreign accent as possible, and am reasonably successful in this. I think I have a good ear for languages, which might be related to my musical abilities, and am quite good at oral mimicry. I find that mimicking the way foreigners speak English and doing the same when I speak their language helps.

Do you speak an foreign languages with a native-like accent? What has helped you to do so.

Gesture and speech

I went to an interesting seminar yesterday which discussed the use of gestures in bilinguals and monolinguals. Research in Canada and China found that bilinguals tend to gesture more overall than monolinguals, and that they gesture more in their less dominant language. It was also found that gestures were most frequent when people were trying to remember words – the tip of the tongue phenomenon – and that participants in the study who were told to keep their hands still found it harder to recall words.

Here’s an abstract of the talk (Word doc).

Do you gesture more in some languages than in others?

Do you use more gestures when trying to retrieve words?

Speech perception

According to a report on EurekaAlert, speech perception is not based solely on hearing, but also on sight and even touch. All these senses blend together to enable us to perceive what others say.

We use clues from the movement of the lips, teeth, tongue and other facial features to help use to decipher speech. If you watch a video of someone articulating one sound, e.g. “ba”, combined with a recording of them saying a different sound, e.g. “ka”, you will probably perceive the sound they are articulating, rather than the one on the recording, or something in between the two sounds, such as “da”. This is known as the McGurk Effect. This happens even if you know what sounds are different and concentrate on the audio.

Here’s an example:

According to the research, the McGurk Effect is evidence that the senses are inextricably integrated, and that the brain perceives the acoustic and visual signals of speech as part of a single system. Other studies have found that this link is established even before young children are able to perceive individual phonemes.