Comedy sketch characters talking in dialect or a foreign accent are common on entertainment shows. Yet do the characters themselves realize that as they make people laugh, they are also helping language researchers in their work? Accents are loaded with attitudes, and bringing them to light often requires some trickery from the researchers.

What attitudes do ordinary language users have towards dialects, ways of pronunciation and foreign accents? These are the issues Mia Halonen is addressing in her research.

“All attitudes related to a language are actually projected onto the speaker of the language,” Halonen says. “As for an accent, the question is about how we can hear some influence of the speaker’s primary language behind the speech, and, based on this, start to bundle people into language groups.”

The types of attitudes projected onto language speakers vary considerably. Accents carry significant weight: nationalities and national states, categorisations, stereotypes and one region’s common experiences with another region.

We all have attitudes but seldom say them out loud. We often do not even notice that we are biased. Bringing these attitudes to light can, at times, require a few tricks, such as the matched-guise technique.

“In this technique, one speaker produces two different outputs. Then the test participants evaluate such as how pleasant or grammatically correct the speaker is. In other words, they evaluate matters that are not strictly related to language but more to the speaker as a person. Using the same speaker in several samples helps to grasp participants’ relationship to, for example, a local dialect versus standard language,” says Halonen.

A test may also include only one spoken sample, but the participant is prepared for the task with a description or a picture of the speaker. Then it is observed how this preparation affects the way the listener hears the speech. The preparation may affect the participants in such a way that if they expect to hear, for example, a sharper letter s in speech, they hear it.

“In a way, we are cheating the participatants,” Halonen says.

Caricature as a research assistant

In popular culture, accents are often used as a source of humour. Comedy sketch characters typically accentuate an easily recognizable feature of a primary language. This simplification could be compared to the way a cartoonist exaggerates recognisable features and creates a caricature based on them. Some words are given an extra effect by changing one letter to produce a double meaning.

For example, the popular Finnish variety show Putous has featured characters such as Svetlana Rönkkö, Tove Hanson and Karim Zyskowich. For the characters, the overall appearance, not just the language and the accent, is essential. According to Halonen, the actors have done an excellent job when creating the characters.

“From a researcher’s perspective, it is interesting that these characters show us an everyman’s linguistic analysis of how, for example, a Russian person sounds. This may be an even more interesting topic for study than how a Russian person actually sounds in. In a way, the actors have made the analysis phase on behalf of language researchers. Then we can see what they have selected and how they have succeeded based on how the character has been received,” Halonen says.

Halonen finds it fascinating and more than a little funny to see what kind of matters we pay attention to.

“For example, the use of a sibilant is enough to make the character Russian, even though there are seven different s sounds in Russian! When there is only one s sound in Finnish, different and powerful phonemes are enough for our ear to identify a person as Russian.”

Even experts may stumble with accents

Many may not know that the University of Jyväskylä maintains the system for the Finnish National Certificates of Language Proficiency. The language test system plays a key role in who receives Finnish citizenship and who does not. Therefore, it is important to clarify what kind of attitudes the evaluators of language proficiency tests have. In their new project Rik­ki­näis­tä suo­mea: Ak­sent­tien ar­vioin­ti yh­teis­kun­nal­li­sena por­tin­varti­ja­na Halonen and her research team are studying this topic.

“In this project we particularly focus on oral Finnish tests. The evaluators are well trained, but earlier studies show that language experts do not really differ from ordinary persons in terms of attitudes,” says Halonen.

The project material has been selected to include speakers of primary languages towards which Finns, according to studies, have negative attitudes for different reasons. The material comprises speakers of Arabic, Russian, Estonian and Finland Swedish.

“The material reveals that if the evaluator does not recognise a speaker’s primary language, the speaker gets higher points than a person whose primary language the evaluator recognises. The decrease in grades is statistically significant. Even though the overall evaluation of the person’s language skills is not affected, the pronunciation criteria, for example, should be viewed from the perspective of the research results. In addition, the criteria of the language proficiency test should be developed more generally so that the system would stay fair,” Halonen says.

Personally, Halonen hopes that there would not be any need to pay attention to accents.

 “If we can say someone is speaking with an accent, then we already have recognised that the person is speaking a language we know and have understood what the person said. The way the matter was said should not have any importance. But in the real world things are often different, and that’s why we launched the research project,” Halonen says.

Can attitudes then be changed? There is hardly a fast route, but everyone can affect the matter by becoming aware of one’s own attitudes.

“You cannot stop an emotion from emerging but by being aware you can prevent yourself from reacting to the emotion. Of course, keeping the basic education level high also helps. It can have a great effect on phenomena such as this.”

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