January 25, 2011

Raising Trilingual Kids: English, German, Scottish Gaelic

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:26 pm by mariawolters

My husband and I are raising our children trilingually. This is sufficiently rare (and interesting from a linguistic point of view!) that I have decided to devote a series of posts on my research blog to it. (Well, it’s not that rare among the people I know – I am aware of English/German/Greek or English/Japanese/Czech, for example; in my daughter’s Gaelic primary school, an average of one or two pupils per year have German parents, and there is a small Japanese community). While most of these posts will collect my observations and notes (raw data to you linguists out there), I will also occasionally look at the relevant literature. This post is an introduction to our trilingual context, and how it came to be.

I am a bit of a language geek, having studied general and applied linguistics, phonetics, and computational linguistics at university. My first encounter with Gaelic was in 1995/96, when I spent a year at the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics (now Linguistics and English Language). While there, I decided to investigate the local languages (naturally!), in particular Scottish Gaelic. Scottish Gaelic or Gàidhlig is a close relative of Irish Gaelic and one of the three main languages of Scotland, the other two being Scots and English. I ended up taking a term of Scottish Gaelic for beginners and wrote my final thesis in Computer Science on a text-to-speech synthesis system for Scottish Gaelic.

After my return to Germany, I worked as a lecturer for a while, and got married to my husband, who I met at university. We are both Germans, and use the language almost exclusively at home. I moved to Scotland in early 2001, my husband followed in mid 2001, and we have been living in Edinburgh ever since. When we expected our first child in 2005, my dormant affection for Gaelic reawakend (what can you say, pregnancy hormones!), and I decided to put my child through Gaelic Medium Education (GME) . Apart from the obvious advantage of learning one more language, preserving linguistic heritage, and having a strong culture of music, drama, and poetry, GME has an excellent reputation for scholastic excellence. So my decision wasn’t entirely irrational. Oh, and GME kids are not bound and gagged by endless assessments and strict key stage progressions. While they learn at their own pace, they nevertheless somehow catch up with their peers, sometimes even surpassing them, by the time they move on to Secondary School.

When my daughter, and later our son, were born, I took them to the local Gaelic playgroup, Croileagan. Although not much Gaelic is spoken, because most of the mothers are English, it is enough to get a flair for basic vocabulary and sentences such as “Suidh sias aig a bhòrd!” (Sit down at the table).

Both my children started an English-speaking day nursery aged between 7 and 9 months. They go / went there three to four days a week and often attend English-speaking creches. While we will sing English songs with our children, read them English books, and let them watch television and DVDs in English, all other communication with our children is in German, even if other people are present. We will only speak English to our children if we want to make sure others can understand what we are saying (e.g., when admonishing them for misbehaving).

My daughter is now 5.5 years old. Her dominant language is English, which she uses with other children. Her German is hampered by lack of exposure to the language, and we are currently working (informally, of course!) on declensions, conjugation, and irregular verbs. I would say in terms of language acquisition, she is at her age level in English, and one year behind in German. She started attending sgoil-àraich (Gaelic nursery) for four, then five session when she was three. During her whole time there, she rarely used Gaelic at home, and did not even sing songs.

At age 5, when she started primary school, with full immersion in the language, that changed dramatically. She no longer asks for her gloves, but for her miotagan, not for her hat, but for her bonaid. Today, she wanted “an Saft sin” (Saft=juice in German) and declared of an activity “‘S e boring”. All I need to do to get her to speak is throw in the odd phrase or sentence. Since my own Gaelic is extremely patchy, I am sadly unable to provide her with the models that I frequently use to improve her German, but school is, as far as I can tell, doing a great job.

My son is not using any Gaelic yet, but he understands simple words and commands. He is English-dominant, but his German is catching up fast, and come August, he will hopefully join his big sister in the Edinburgh German Saturday School.

Next post (some time in the near future, during another interminable bedtime): Learning to read in Gaelic, how on Earth does that work?


January 16, 2011

P is happy and N is sad – a biological universal?

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:32 pm by mariawolters

Twitter has been abuzz recently with news of a paper that claims to have found universal sound correlates of happiness and sadness:

Auracher, J., Albers, S., Zhai, Y., Gareeva, G., & Stavniychuk, T. (2011). P Is for Happiness, N Is for Sadness: Universals in Sound Iconicity to Detect Emotions in Poetry Discourse Processes, 48 (1), 1-25 DOI: 10.1080/01638531003674894


Following a conversation between Sophie Scott and Maria Panagiotidi , I decided to investigate. Let’s get started.

The central hypothesis is certainly intriguing: Speech sounds can be universally, biologically linked to certain emotions. As Auracher et al. correctly note, such a hypothesis flies in the face of a central tenet of linguistics: For almost all words, the link between sound and meaning is arbitrary. Words whose sounds are closely connected to their meaning, such as “pop” or “buzz” are the exception, not the rule. Based on previous work by Wiseman and van Peer (2003) and Albers (2008), they hypothesise that plosives evoke happiness and nasals evoke sadness. Albers, it should be noted, worked on Ancient Egyptian, a language for which no sound recordings exist. What we know about the phonology and phonetics of this language is due to razor-sharp reasoning, long hours spent slaving over parallel texts, and some of the most exacting empirical investigations in the whole of philology. (I would dearly love some Egyptologist input on the feasibility of sound symbolism studies for this language, by the way.)

Oral plosives are a class of sounds that are made by closing off a part of the vocal tract and then opening it again. You can close off the vocal tract at lots of different places. English only uses a few of these: the lips (that would be p or b), the space just behind the teeth (t, d), and the soft palate (k, g). Try saying p, t, k, and then b, d, g, and notice what happens when the closure is released.

Nasals are made in a way that is very similar to plosives, with one important difference: while the mouth is blocked off, the nasal cavity is open. Try saying m, n, ng, and compare this to b, d, g. You will find that the place at which the mouth is closed off is similar, but now, the sound “comes out” through the nose.

Which means that the difference between happiness and sadness is all in the nose …

Anyway, back to the research. What we have here is clearly an extraordinary hypothesis, which requires very strong evidence. Let’s see whether Auracher et al. have been able to provide this. At first glance, their overall approach appears to be very thorough:

[…] this study (a) uses a sufficiently large text basis to test the results for their general validity, (b) includes several languages to test the results for their universality, (c) asks participants to rate the texts to avoid subjective categorization, (d) uses an established dimensional model of emotions to categorize the phonemes, and (e) predicts a distinct relation between the relative occurrence of specific phonemes and the particular meaning expressed by the overall text.

All of these are commendable, but as always, the devil is in the detail. What is a sufficiently large text basis, and what kinds of texts should be used? Auracher and colleagues choose poetry, because there, they would expect to see particularly strong links between sound symbolism (phonosemantics) and emotional content. This is a reasonable argument, because poets harness everything language offers to create complex pieces of art that can evoke strong emotions in readers and listeners.

How many poems did the choose? Why, as far as I can see, two per language, each taken from one particular large collection of poetry. In my book, that is not “large”, but then I am also a computational linguist, and within computational linguistics, my main specialty is corpus linguistics. That is, I am used to dealing with databases of language and speech that contain thousands, tens of thousands, and millions of words of text. An alternative approach, which was taken by Whissell (1999), would be to examine the vocabulary of a language and look at the frequency of different types of sounds in words with positive or negative emotional connotations. This is very difficult to do cross-linguistically, because you need a well-curated lexicon with the appropriate information, or at least a thesaurus which would allow you to extract words for positive and negative emotions automatically.

The way Auracher et al. chose their two poems is linked to (e) – they selected the poem with the highest and the poem with the lowest plosive-to-nasal ratio from four collections of poems, one per language.

Which brings us to (b), including several languages. They selected a total of four languages, German, Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese. German, Russian, and Ukrainian are Indo-European languages, just like Hindi and Urdu. German is a close relative of English – both are in fact West Germanic languages, while the Scandinavian languages form the North Germanic family. Russian and Ukrainian are not only both Slavic languages, they also belong to the same sub-branch of the Slavic family, East Slavic. Chinese in its manifold forms is part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. This is hardly a representative sample – Indo-European, and in particular East Slavic, are vastly oversampled, and whole language families have been left untouched. Typologists who study language universals would typically insist on a broader sample.

The authors recruited a substantial number of participants for each language and asked them to rate each poem on a number of dimensions that have been used to classify human emotions. (Let me repeat – each participant only saw two poems, and these were in their native language.) Asking people to rate a stimulus along several dimensions is more reliable than asking them to rate whether a stimulus is happy, angry, or sad, so this was a very good decision to make. Participants did not know the research hypothesis, but they were debriefed afterwards if they wanted to. The dimensional model that Auracher et al. used looks sound enough to me, but having dabbled in emotion research myself, I know only too well that there is no single well-established model of human emotion, and that each of the rating scales that have been proposed so far have their problems. Inter-cultural differences are not the least of these issues.

The four groups of participants, which were opportunity samples (friends, acquaintances, recruited from “clubs or associations”) differed significantly in their gender ratios, age range, and education levels. None of the Chinese participants gave any personal information. As with the language sample, I would expect more of a balance in the participant sample – or at least an attempt at maintaining similar gender ratios and a similar coverage of age groups.

Some of the results were statistically significant.

I would like to leave you with two quotes from the paper. First, one from the discussion:

It has to be acknowledged that other models (e.g., Tsur, 1992) and empirical research (e.g., Miall, 2001; Whissell, 1999, 2000) lead toward different—and partially opposite—conclusions about the meaning of nasal and plosive sounds. In particular, Whissell (1999) identified the nasal phoneme /m/ as an active–pleasant sound and the plosive /t/ as a passive–unpleasant sound.

Whissell (1999) was the empirical vocabulary study I discussed earlier as an example of the kind of methodology I would have preferred to subjective judgements of two poems per language and participant.

Then, there is this speculation from the introduction:

However, if these cross-connections between facial gestures and movements of other parts of the body are hardwired, it sounds plausible to us that the articulation of certain phonemes can sympathetically mimic postures and movements, which are related to emotional states. As an example, this could mean that sounds, expressed with a closed mouth and constantly constrained lips or tongue, such as nasal phonemes, rather simulate the body movements of people who are in depressed, melancholic, sad, or passive moods, whereas the opening of the mouth and the explosive release of the air stream in plosive phonemes is associated with active, happy people.

Remember – the difference between oral plosives and nasals is all in the nose. Hardwired neural links between sounds and emotions require strong evidence. Are you convinced?

Additional References

Albers, S. (2008). Lautsymbolik in ägyptischen Texten [Sound symbolism in Egyptian texts]. Mainz, Germany: Zabern.

Miall, D. (2001). Sounds of contrast: An empirical approach to phonemic iconicity. Poetics, 29, 55–70.

Tsur, R. (1992). What makes sound patterns expressive? The poetic mode of speech perception. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Whissell, C. (1999). Phonosymbolism and the emotional nature of sounds: Evidence of the preferential use of particular phonemes in texts of differing emotional tone. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 89, 19–48.

Whissell, C. (2000). Phonoemotional profiling: A description of the emotional flavour of English texts on the basis of the phonemes employed in them. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 91, 617–648.

Wiseman, M., & van Peer, W. (2003). Roman Jakobsons Konzept der Selbstreferenz aus der Perspektive der heutigen Kognitionswissenschaft [Roman Jakobson’s concept of self-reference from the perspective of present-day cognition studies]. In H. Birus, S. Donat, & B. Meyer- Sickendiek (Eds.), Roman Jakobsons Gedichtanalysen. Eine Herausforderung an die Philologien (pp. 277–306). Göttingen, Germany: Wallstein.

EDIT: Misattribution of original Twitter conversation fixed. (January 16)

January 13, 2011

The Astonishing Case of Dr Friedman, the Third Year Presidents, and the Student Who Dared to Have a Baby

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:32 pm by mariawolters

According to Dr Isis, the Presidents of the Third Year Students at the University of California, Davis, sent the following email to their classmates:

Dear Colleagues,

One of our classmates recently gave birth and will be out of class for an unknown period of time. This means she will undoubtedly miss one, or more, or all quizzes in VMD 444. Dr. Feldman is not sure how to handle this and has requested the class give input and vote. He has provided us with 6 options on which to vote and is open to any other ideas you may have. Most likely a CERE poll will be up next week and a voting will close no later than Wednesday. If you have other suggestions please email them to Dan or I ASAP. We will alert you to the opening of voting. Below are listed the options that Dr. Feldman has suggested. Please reserve comment on these options and provide us your opinion on them by voting when the time comes. Thank you for your understanding in this matter.

a) automatic A final grade
b) automatic B final grade
c) automatic C final grade
d) graded the same as everyone else: best 6 quiz scores out of a possible 7 quiz scores (each quiz only given only once in class with no repeats)
e) just take a % of quiz scores (for example: your classmate takes 4 quizzes, averages 9/10 points = 90% = A)
f) give that student a single final exam at the end of the quarter (however this option is only available to this one student, all others are graded on the best 6 quiz scores and the % that results)

Please let us know if you have other thoughts on how to handle this situation and please keep your eye out for the upcoming vote.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Your Presidents

A full account of the circumstances can be foundhere, together with some reactions from UC Davis students.

I would like to comment on this from the perspective of somebody who worked as a lecturer at the University of Bonn for three years (November 1997 – Februrary 2001) and who has been a guest lecturer and supervised MSc and Honours students at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and Queen Margaret University, UK.

First of all, such a dilemma is unlikely to occur in the UK and Germany, countries who are familiar with the idea of granting multiple months’ Maternity Leave to women as opposed to the few weeks US women often get. In my time, I have taught many students who interrupted their studies or took on a reduced course load when they became parents. Students negotiated these solutions with their directors of studies (UK) or devised them on their own (Germany). In case of problems or conflict, they would contact the lecturer directly, and the lecturer would maintain total discretion.

Even though I have never worked in the rigid, family-unfriendly structures that UC Davis appears to foist onto its veterinary students, there are a couple of ethical guidelines of conduct that lecturers throughout the world should follow, such as confidentiality and a commitment to fostering and nurturing each student’s abilities.

From those principles, it follows that, on learning about the student’s pregnancy or new baby, the very first thing Dr Friedman should have done was to review the relevant institutional policies. I’m sure student services would have had some pretty good suggestions, as well.

Next, he should have conferred with the new/expectant mother. In the UK, the student would also have had a director of studies, a personal mentor who is responsible for pastoral care, and would normally help students with maternity leave arrangements. With the best interests of the student at heart, professor and student should have reviewed the available options, and discussed what fit best with the student’s previous performance, professional aspirations, and the postnatal support available to the student. As a lecturer, I would see this as the basic minimum required to fulfil the duty of care I have towards my students.

If there were any doubts or uncertainties, the case should have been referred to upwards, student services should have become involved, and due process should have been followed. Note the passive voice – I am assuming that there are processes and guidelines for such cases. I don’t for one moment believe that this was the first time a student has had a baby, or for that matter fallen very ill, or required an extended break, in the middle of a semester. I would be astounded to hear that UC Davis requires its lecturers to reinvent the wheel every time they encounter a tricky situation.

No matter how this played out in the end, at NO STAGE IN THE PROCESS should this decision have been left to the fellow students. It is a gross violation of the professional ethics I have been taught to respect as a lecturer. It doesn’t matter how many teaching awards a lecturer has, this is a matter of basic human decency.

However, I am even more disgusted at the students. If I had attempted such a stunt while still a lecturer at Bonn, the Fachschaft, who represent the students in each discipline, would have hauled me over hot coals the minute they heard about this. Never would they have let a fellow student down like this. I mean, not even the local Conservative student organisation, which at the time mainly consisted of over-ambitious young law and economics students, would have condoned such behaviour.

Now, I don’t know whether Friedman did indeed try to talk to the student and work out a solution with her in private. But that does not change one startling and horrifying fact – that it was the students themselves who turned on one of their own.

Why did the Presidents of the Year let themselves be used as a cover for a lecturer who was either not willing or not capable of following the procedures that would be common practice at almost every university I am familiar with?

Truly, a sad story. I hope it is reblogged and discussed widely.

(P.S.: Before you go off on an extended rant about the selfishness of reproducing breeders in the comments, replace “new baby” with “a couple of weeks in hospital after an accident” and consider whether that would change your point of view.)

January 7, 2011

Nature for the Humanities? No Thank You! Humanities American? Yes Please!

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:30 am by mariawolters

A couple of days ago, Alice Bell mentioned a post by Christopher Pressler, Nature for the Humanities, on Twitter. I read the blog and Alice’s response with great interest, since my own research and personal interests span the sciences and the humanities.

What would a “Nature for the Humanities” be like? A behemoth of a publication, majestic in its impact, expansive in the size of the collaborations it fosters, and mighty in its outreach towards the public. Funders shall fall to their knees in awe before the glamour publications contained therein.


First of all, I hate to break the news, but not all sciences work like the disciplines that populate Nature and Science. In computer science, one of my fields, journals play a relatively subordinate role, impact factors are typically between 1 and 3, and many of the really groundbreaking publications are reserved for extremely competitive conferences with an acceptance rate of 20-25%. A core journal in one of my other fields, phonetics, the venerable and highly respected Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, has an impact factor which makes it unattractive to many medical researchers.

This colourful variety has its drawbacks: papers aren’t properly indexed, subject-specific literature search engines like CiteSeer or the ACM Digital Library are quite limited in their functionality. Computer Science is one field where Google Scholar has made a real difference in literature searching, leading hopefully to fewer reinvented wheels.

And despite a lack of traditional glamour publications, we computer scientists get our funding, we get big grants, and we talk to people about what we are doing.

But this is not about computer science, it’s about the Humanities. Well, let’s see what Christopher highlights as some of the major differences between the humanities and the sciences:

– Less formal engagement with the public
– Vastly differing research practices and disciplines
– Fewer large grant-funding opportunities
– Fewer collaborative research communities
– Prestige exists primarily in monographs rather than journals

He then outlines the following desirable practices for a Nature for the Humanities:

– Ensuring the humanities matter (to agencies and the public)
– Agreeing that subject differences are a strength
– Promoting collaborative research projects and practices

I can see at least two massive holes in Christopher’s argument. The first regards engagement with the public. Now, this observation might be biased because I am used to German media with a wide variety of weekly newspapers and magazines that give a voice to psychologists, sociologists, and historians. I have spent countless hours reading reviews of the latest historical treatises – many of these were books that were used to obtain postdoctoral qualifications at German universities. Nevertheless, these monographs (which could be eBooks in the age of Kindle) were designed to be accessible to everybody with an interest in history. Often, books by major theoreticians and philosophers in history, sociology, and philosophy were extensively discussed in the full glare of the public view.

Sociology, history, philosophy, and literature are fascinating – they deal with phenomena that are familiar to many people, they address pressing issues, and articles in magazines and newspapers (and, for the Web 2.0 fiends among you, blogs) can and will find their audience. You don’t even have to manufacture an impact culture-friendly motivation of cross-cultural exchange – people are fascinated by people, period. If we live in a culture where humanities don’t appear to matter, there are deeper cultural issues involved which a journal modelled on a particular style of academic communication won’t solve.

What might motivate Christopher’s assessment – and it would need an anthropologist or an expert in comparative media studies to assess this properly – is the different media landscape in Britain. In France, the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur not only put the highly influential Pierre Bourdieu (sociologist, innovative theorist) on its cover when he died, but devoted pages upon pages to a retrospective of his life and work. I can’t see that happen in Britain. The closest you would get to that here is probably a cover on the tired science versus religion debate with a fierce Dawkins or a sage Grayling.

(Again, I could be wrong, and I’d love to be corrected if I am. The British press might be more open to discussion of theoretical sociology than I have observed, or the German and French press might no longer be the comparative hotbeds of theory they used to be. I am well aware of the tits and blondes that pervade the Italian press, thank you very much. But oh look, the semioticist and historian of culture Umberto Eco has a regular column in L’Espresso where he talks about culture in its manifold forms.)

The second problem is with Christopher’s insistence on collaborative research. While collaborative work is indeed essential when working on large projects such as dictionaries, surveys, or inventories of artists’ works, the humanities have plenty to offer for the lone theorist ranger. But does that mean there is no collaboration? No – what you find instead is a strong spirit of discussion and debate. Collaboration does not happen in the form of co-authored papers, but in the form of a web of articles that, over time, yield new, improved theories and concepts. The literature is awash with elaborations, explanations, extensions, criticisms, and rebukes of the work of these theorists. Influential writers will even use – gasp! – textbooks to synthesise their thinking and influence generations of scholars.

To conclude, while there are some aspects of research in the humanities for which Christopher’s concept of a Nature-like journal might work, there are plenty of others for which it might be downright detrimental, in particular basic research, which often involves theoretical edifices and elaborate arguments that cannot be compressed into four pages plus supplemental material. Not to mention the substantial problems involved in forcing all kinds of research endeavours into the Procrustean bed of biomedical publication structures, but that’s another post.

Now, if you’d proposed a “Humanities American” in addition to “Scientific American”, that would have been another matter entirely.

(In this context, it might also be instructive to look at Melody’s discussion of the difficulties Nature and Science have with processing and reviewing papers on language.)

January 1, 2011

New Year, New Research

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:49 pm by mariawolters

So what’s in store for 2011?


I’m a Senior Research Fellow, and in that capacity, I will be working on four projects, in teams of 5–10 other researchers for the first three and around 40 researchers for the fourth.

  • Multimemohome: Designing effective, adaptable, acceptable, and accessible reminders for the home. Funder: EPSRC Until February 2013. Work Package 1 successfully completed. Major dual-tasking experiments in the planning stage.
  • TeleSynth: How well can older people understand spoken medication reminders under adverse listening conditions? Funder: Chief Scientist Office. Until August 2011. In the Data Collection stage.
  • CADENCE: Towards an Intelligent Cognitive Assistant that helps older people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease use simple software, such as a calendar, independently. Funder: Leverhulme. Until December 2012. About to start qualitative work – user requirements capture.
  • Help4Mood: Telecare for people with depression, with a decision-support system on the clinician side and various kinds monitoring wizardry, including a virtual agent, on the patient side. Funder: European Commission. Until December 2013. About to start work.

(I work three days a week, so time management is going to be somewhat interesting. For various personal and professional reasons, I won’t be going up to four days a week until late Spring / early Summer.)

Papers, Publications, and Travel

I urgently need to turn around two journal papers that have been dogging me for years – one where I kept missing “golden time slots” for finishing the write-up, and one that has been rejected twice, and will go into a final journal before being laid to rest as a Technical Report.

Other than that, I have three papers scheduled for publication in 2011, a full paper and a note at CHI 2011 (second author on the paper, third on the note), and a second-authored paper at the INCLUDE 2011 Inclusive Design Conference in London.

For INCLUDE 2011, I’ll travel to London in April, for CHI 2011, to Vancouver in early May, and in late May, I’ll be in Dublin, co-chairing a workshop at Pervasive Health 2011 on Advances in Techniques and Technologies for Assisting Care at Home (ATTACH).

I plan to submit at least three papers:

  • A four-page paper to the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in Hong Kong. It’s every four years, it’s fab, all phoneticians will be there and IPA’ing it up. Extremely popular, hence only one first-author submission per person.
  • A journal paper expanding on work we did on using Amazon Mechanical Turk to assess the intelligibility of computer voices. The data’s almost collected, I’m just waiting on a final lab validation study, and then, the write-up can begin.
  • A journal paper reporting on the TeleSynth results


I am doing bits and pieces on an EU Framework 7 Information and Communication Technologies application and revising a Marie Curie Initial Training Network grant for resubmission. Both are due in January. After they’re in, I don’t intend to write any more grants until TeleSynth has finished in August 2011, being already funded part-time until the end of 2013 and all that jazz.


I hope to post at least three entries a month. One will be about a piece of research I’m doing or that I will be presenting, the second will be about linguistics, speech, statistics, or research life, and the third will be an entry to the month’s Scientiae carnival.

If you have any suggestions for topics, please comment below or let me know on Twitter.