How Can You Tell I’m American?

One of the greatest challenges about being in Paris is being constantly exposed to a foreign language. I have found that fewer Parisians than expected speak English. Having studied French for a number of years, I am always eager to test my ability to communicate with native French speakers. I try to practice French in Paris as often as possible, whether it is through ordering food (obviously my most important application of the language), asking for directions, or even giving directions sometimes. Just a couple of days ago I asked a young lady for directions while on the metro and even though I knew that I had appropriately phrased my sentence in French, she responded in English. I knew that my accent had given away the fact that my native language is English, but I had expected her to respond in French. I have found myself in similar situations on many occasions. One time I was speaking French to an angry Cite Universitaire, the campus on which we are living, security guard after I had been locked out of my room and he responded in English, “I don’t speak English.” I was puzzled and in French let him know that I can speak French and he responded, “no you can’t.” I chose not to take this second encounter personally and instead began to wonder what about my speaking bothered him so much. It must have been my accent. Accent perception is such an interesting concept. We can tell what country a person is from, or even perhaps the city in which they were born not by listening to the words that they say, but by listening to the way that they say them.

Cite Universitaire (labeled as A)- where we have been living for the past 3 weeks.

In a study done by Adank et al. (2011), native monolingual Dutch speakers were played Dutch phrases in a Dutch accent and were also played the same Dutch phrases in an unfamiliar accent. While listening, the subjects’ brains were monitored using an fMRI scanner, a machine which uses magnetic imagining to monitor brain activity. The study showed that when the sound stimuli changed from the familiar to the unfamiliar accent, more of the subjects’ superior temporal gyrus (STG), a brain area involved in basic auditory language processing, became activated. The STG has also been shown to be associated with phonetic-analytic listening to speech. Perhaps this gives insight into as to why more of the STG is activated when listening to an unfamiliar accent; the brain is recruiting more cells to help analyze the phonetics of the speech because the speech is foreign. It is important to understand this because when French individuals hear me speaking French with an English accent, their STG becomes increasingly activated and they recognize that not only am I speaking in an accent, but then, through using other areas of the brain, may be able to understand what language I am speaking.

An exhibit in the Louvre Museum spelling out "love differences" in many different languages.

Whenever I’m on the metro and everyone around me is speaking French, it is difficult for me to decipher what they are saying unless they are speaking directly to me. I was curious as to the ways in which my brain would have responded to the sounds on the metro had I learned French at a younger age, but second to English. I wondered how the bilingual brain responds to language perception in general. In a study done by Archila-Suerte et al. (2012), a group of bilingual Spanish-English speaking children (whose native language is Spanish) and monolingual English speaking children were played the English syllables, “saf,” “sof,” and “suf,” while watching a silent film. These syllables were chosen because they are pronounced similarly in Spanish and would provide more insight into activation of the bilingual brain (perhaps because they may activate regions involved in perception of both languages). The subjects were told to focus on the silent film while the syllables were being played to them and simultaneously the group was analyzing the subjects’ brains using an fMRI scanner. The study was performed for young and older bilingual and monolingual children. The group found that the young monolingual and bilingual children had the STG activated (let’s call this area 1) while listening to the syllables. This data implies that the bilingual children when just beginning to learn the second language perhaps relates it to the first language and processes it in the same brain area. However, the older monolingual children still only had area 1 activated during the task whereas bilingual children had area 1 as well as other areas in the brain activated. This suggests that as bilingual children begin to master a second language more, their brain recruits other areas, other than area 1, to help distinguish between the two languages. Perhaps my brain is similar to the brain of the younger bilingual children, since I have not yet begun to master the French language. My brain may not be able to recruit other areas to help area 1 decipher a language other than English and this may be why I am unable to easily pick out French words and conversations while on the train. However, French individuals who are able to easily recognize my accent, process what my native language is, and then respond in my native language perhaps have activation of other brain areas which help the STG decipher the language. This is due to the idea that they are bilingual and no longer need to relate their second mastered language to their native language. It would be interesting to see what the combined results of the first and second study would be; to pursue a study that looked at monolingual and bilingual individuals’ brain activation to speaking their common language in an accent. I am curious to see if by being well versed in more than one language, bilingual children are able to recognize accents easier. Maybe one day I’ll master the French language enough to not have to constantly compare it to English! I guess I’ll just have to ensure that this isn’t my last trip to Paris…

–          Ankita Gumaste

Adank P, Noordzij ML, Hagoort P (2011) The role of planum temporal in processing accent variation in spoken language comprehension. Human brain mapping 33: 360-372.

Archila-Suerte P, Zevin J, Ramos AI, Hernandez AE (2012) The neural bases of non-native speech perception in bilingual children. NeuroImage 67: 51-63.

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