The New Speakers Blog

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Putting the social into speech processing

On July 11th, UCL will be hosting a small group of phoneticians with more than just their interest in exotic speech sounds in common.

A few years ago, Bronwen was approached by Gisela to supervise a PhD investigating sociophonetic variation in Galicia. Not quite knowing what she was getting into, Bronwen very enthusiastically agreed, thinking that this would be a great opportunity to combine her work on sociophonetics, specifically, accent variation, with her interest in second language learning. Little did she realize that she would soon be exploring a whole new literature, that of the New Speaker phenomenon.

The study of such non-traditional bilinguals or 'new speakers' has quite rightly received much attention, particularly in terms of identifying and examining similarities and differences between New Speaker profiles and practices across immigrant and minority language communities in Europe (O'Rourke et al., 2015; O'Rourke & Pujolar, 2015), but also in studies of language revitalization, language planning, and language attitudes (see e.g., Nance, 2015 for a review). However, we know much less about the phonetics and phonology of New Speaker varieties.

We believe that studying how New Speakers process, perceive and produce the sounds of their languages has the potential to provide a novel perspective on fundamental questions in speech processing. For example, we know that there are limits to how much a second language learner or even bilingual can learn about a second language (e.g., Iverson et al., 2003; Flege et al., 1999; Antoniou et al., 2012). We also know that social factors such as motivation and attitude, likely play a role in learning (e.g., DeWaele, 2007) and moreover, that they way in which we produce our language is key to expressing and communicating identity. Working with New Speakers, who are usually highly motivated to acquire their new language, e.g., for cultural reasons, thus provides us with an ideal opportunity to tease apart the role of maturational constraints and social factors in learning.

After conversations with colleagues at conferences and workshops, we decided the time was right to organize a small-scale workshop to explore these kinds of questions. We are lucky that the phonetics and phonology world is not short of conferences, and that we often get to present our work– in fact the idea for this workshop came about because of us going along to many of these presentations – so we decided we'd do something slightly different. So, on Monday, rather than presenting and discussing past work, we'll be focussing on discussing the theoretical and methodological challenges we face, of which we know there are many, and thinking about ways to combine our expertise in phonetic and (neuro)psychological methods. Ultimately, on the adage that two (or more) heads are better than one, we'd like to come up with a research plan that aims to better understand the complex relationship between variation & change, speech perception & production and social context.

Watch this space!


Antoniou M., Tyler, M. D., Best, C. T. 2012. Two ways to listen: Do L2-dominant bilinguals perceive stop voicing according to language mode? Journal of Phonetics, 40, 582– 594.

Dewaele, J. (2009) Perception, attitude and motivation. In V. Cook & Li Wei (eds.), Language Teaching and Learning. London: Continuum, pp. 163-192.

Iverson P, Kuhl PK, Akahane-Yamada R, Diesch E, Tohkura Y, Kettermann A, & Siebert C. (2003). A perceptual interference account of acquisition difficulties for non-native phonemes. Cognition.

McCarthy, K. M., Mahon, M., Rosen, S. & Evans, B.G. (2014). Speech perception and production by sequential bilingual children: A longitudinal study of voice onset time acquisition. Child Development 85 (5).

Nance, C. (2015). ‘New’ Scottish Gaelic speakers in Glasgow: a phonetic study of language revitalization. Language in Society 44 (4): 553-579.

O’Rourke, B. & Ramallo, F. (2015). Neofalantes as an active minority: Understanding language practices and motivations for change amongst new speakers of Galician. International Journal for the Sociology of Language. 231.

O’Rourke, B. & Pujolar, J. (2015). New Speakers and processes of new speakerness across time and space in Applied Linguistics Review 6(2).

O’Rourke, B., Pujolar, J. & Ramallo, F. (2015). New speakers of minority languages: the challenging opportunity – Foreword. International Journal for the Sociology of Language. 231.

Tomé Lourido, G. & Evans, B.G. (2015). Switching language dominance for ideological reasons: A study of new speakers' speech production and perception. In the Proceedings of the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Glasgow UK, August 2015.

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