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Setting the right tone: Acquiring second language Spanish intonation abroad

Phillip Thornberry is a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic Linguistics who will defend his dissertation in spring of 2014. Phil’s research focuses on Spanish intonation and second language acquisition, which he discusses here:

Summary of research
My current research deals with the longitudinal development and use of native-like Spanish intonation by University of Minnesota students studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina during an academic semester. Intonation, broadly, is the melodic component of language, and speakers of Buenos Aires Spanish are well known for their distinct intonational patterns. A study abroad semester in Buenos Aires, then, provides a good opportunity to track the development of Spanish intonation in learners. In particular, I am interested in achieving two primary goals: (1) determining and classifying the patterns of change in intonation over time by learners of Spanish, and (2) identifying the extralinguistic factors that may condition these patterns of change, such as the density of social networks established with native speakers, motivation to learn Spanish, and learner attitudes towards the host culture, society, and language.

What am I seeking in my research?
I am seeking to understand if and how an understudied but extremely important aspect of language (i.e. the melodic qualities of speech) is incorporated into a second language learner’s developing linguistic system. Understanding how second-language intonation develops might give us a better sense of the overall trajectory of the language acquisition process, and another parameter upon which to judge proficiency in a second language. I am also seeking to identify what factors may promote or hinder the development of these abilities. Lastly, I hope to understand the importance of intonation in second language learner speech in communication and what native-like or non-native-like intonation might convey about a second language speaker during communicative encounters.

How do I approach answering these questions?
I approach these questions via a variationist approach to learner language. Following a long line of prior research, I assume that a learner’s developing language (like their native language) changes in subtle but important ways in different settings and styles. Therefore, when attempting to characterize second language intonation, I believe it is critical to examine it in diverse speech contexts, such as in differing levels of formality and with different interlocutors. This framework recognizes the variable nature of learner language, thus offering a more complete account of the developing linguistic system. Furthermore, my dissertation addresses the external non-linguistic variables that influence change in intonation over time.


toledo"A love/hate relationship: Does saying 'grathias' make you sound like a poser?"

Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies' Ph.D. candidate Angela George's linguistics research examines how a student's attitude affects his or her adoption of regional speech characteristics. Angela writes:

My dissertation research examines how people choose (or not) to adopt a regional form of a language when learning it.  By investigating what happens when university students study abroad in North-Central Spain I examine to what extent they pick up the local pronunciations. The majority of the students in my study originally learned Latin American Spanish, and growing up in the U.S. were exposed to this variety of Spanish more than the Spanish of North-Central Spain. After arriving in Spain, the students then had to choose which way they wanted to speak, sometime mixing elements of Latin American Spanish with the Spanish of Spain. In this part of Spain, speaking using the sound 'th' for the letters 'z' and 'c' before 'i' and 'e' and the gutty throat sound in written 'j' and 'g' before 'i' and 'e' is the norm. This differs from Latin American Spanish, where 'th' is replaced with 's' and the gutty throat sound become a smoother sound similar to an 'h' in English. The final major difference between the Spanish in Spain and that of Latin America is the use of 'you guys', or vosotros, in Spain and 'y'all' or ustedes in Latin America. My research examines how students developed these two sounds as well as vosotros after being surrounded by native-speakers who use all of these features.

My research seeks to determine what factors cause students to incorporate these three dialectal features into their speech while being immersed in Spain. In order to do this I used a variety of tasks to get them to talk, including a conversation with a native speaker, because students will more likely use these features when speaking with someone else using the same features. This is called accommodating to the other speaker. In order to figure out why students incorporate this dialect or not into their speech, I investigated what social factors were associated with the use of these variants. In addition to interviewing the participants, I used questionnaires to find out how much time they were spending with native Spanish speakers, their attitude toward this dialect and why they wanted to learn Spanish.

The results show that the students are more likely to acquire the vosotros (or you guys) form as opposed to the two sounds studied. Some students expressed that they did not wish to sound Spanish, and therefore did not incorporate the sounds, but some of these same students couldn't help but to incorporate vosotros. It just did not seem natural to them to use the 'th' sound in Spanish and they did not like how it sounded when native speakers used it. Also, when they returned to the U.S. they would sound strange speaking with these sounds from Spain when conversing with Latin Americans. Four students incorporated all three features, because they wanted to integrate themselves into this particular kind of Spanish. They also had more and closer native-speaking friends who spoke this variety of Spanish.

This research will contribute to those of us trying to make learning a language as easy and efficient as possible. In order to do that we need to know exactly what factors (social, cultural, familial, etc.)--many of them unrelated to the language itself--play a role in the decisions people make in the actual process of learning. 

This research was presented on October 26, 2012 at the Hispanic Linguistics Symposium at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL.


"A Ovelha Negra regressa, 14 anos depois" -- Research by Ph.D. candidate Michael Arnold featured in Portuguese daily Público

Michael ArnoldMichael Arnold's dissertation research was mentioned in a recent feature article of the Portuguese daily Público, which describes the return of Portuguese neo-fado group, Ovelha Negra. Michael's interest in the group and enthusiasm for their music are credited by Paulo Pedro Gonçalves with helping to inspire the group's latest album entitled Ilumina.  Michael describes his first contact with Paulo Pedro Gonçalves and his dissertation research below:

I interviewed Paulo Pedro Gonçalves, on April 10th, 2011 in Lisbon, Portugal during my field work research for my dissertation “God Save the Nation: The Hybrid Voices of Twenty-First-Century Indie Neoflamenco and Neofado." Gonçalves is an interesting Prometheus-like figure in Portuguese indie history. He founded the first Portuguese punk band (Os Faíscas), the first Portuguese post punk band (Corpo Diplomático), the first Portuguese new romantic band (Heróis do Mar), as well as the first indie neofado band (Ovelha Negra). The following is a brief abstract of the sixth chapter of my dissertation which deals with Gonçalves´s work with Ovelha Negra:

In the past fifteen years, a new Portuguese music scene has emerged as indie bands have melded elements of the Portuguese fado tradition with rock music. This is a strange hybrid: while Indie rock tends to ally itself with radical leftist politics, fado has often been associated since the 1950s with the specific restorative nostalgia discourse of the right-wing authoritarian regime of António Salazar. The groundwork for this new hybrid was laid, oddly enough, by a Canadian-Portuguese musician: Paulo Pedro Gonçalves, who produced the first indie electronic neofado album Por este andar ainda acabo a morrer em Lisboa (1998) with his band Ovelha Negra. Gonçalves, raised in Toronto and surrounded by fado in a Portuguese household, was uniquely positioned to see the productive potential of a genre that was largely dismissed by the Portuguese indie scene as stale and regressive. I explore Gonçalves´s unique background in relation to the reluctance of other Portuguese indie musicians to incorporate fado music. I argue that his upbringing enabled a special musical habitus which permitted an otherwise unthinkable hybrid creation: blending "regressive" fado with "progressive" indie rock, melding an ethos of ironic detachment with intense yearning and nostalgia. This habitus is informed by the nostalgias inherent in fado and indie genres, as well Goncalves’s own.

The article may be found here: A Ovelha Negra regressa, 14 anos depois


"What's in a Question?" Susana Pérez Castillejo's Linguistics Dissertation

Susan PerezDepartment of Spanish & Portuguese Studies Ph.D. student Susana Pérez Castillejo's linguistics research may help us understand a lot more about a person simply by how he or she asks a question. Read more about Susana's research and how it affects the Spanish-speaking world!

Can you tell where someone is from, how old they are or who they hang out with from the way they ask their questions?

Actually, when someone who grew up in Galicia (northwest Spain) asks you a question in Spanish you can tell their origin from the way they sound and - according to preliminary data - they may be communicating even more with just their intonation (the way they ask it). My research focuses on the way intonation is used in Galician Spanish to communicate linguistic meaning (i.e., a statement versus a question as in habla español vs ¿habla español?) and social meaning, that is, whether the intonation patterns that individuals in this speech community choose to formulate their questions are related to social characteristics such as their age or the social networks in which they participate.

Research on how intonation may be influenced by social factors is in its infancy and so it is not a well-developed aspect of sociolinguistic theory. In particular, we know little of the way intonation may vary and change in communities where speakers of two languages have been in contact for centuries and where there are differences in the prestige associated with each language. Such is the case of Galicia, where Spanish and Galician - the language spoken in the northwest part of the Peninsula - have been in contact since the late Middle Ages. The Spanish spoken in Galicia has inevitably been influenced by Galician, but the way such contact has affected intonation is poorly understood. My dissertation remedies this gap by providing the first extensive quantitative acoustic analysis of the intonation patterns of Spanish speakers with varying degrees of exposure to Galician speakers within their family and social networks. Moreover, because of the traditional stigmatization of Galician and heavily Galician-accented Spanish, the extent to which speakers let vernacular features appear in their utterances may be socially and/or stylistically stratified. By investigating this claim, my research furthers our understanding of how exactly information about class and social importance is conveyed through language and understood by speakers/listeners. The implications reach far beyond Spain, to any place where speakers of two (or more) languages have historically been in contact.