Fast speech and hallucinated sounds

We humans are really good at language.  If you think about it, what we hear is often quite messy: there can be other noises interfering with the speech signal we're listening to and decoding, and that signal is made by a bunch of sloppy moving parts that tends to lead to the signal overlapping in a number of ways rather than crisp, clear separation of phonemes.

This is a short post about one such interaction, this time in Mandarin Chinese. Just over a year ago, Aletheia Cui and I wrote a paper that was accepted for a talk at the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences and published as a working paper, in which we examined casual speech reduction in Mandarin. You can read the whole thing here, if you're interested.

The impetus for the study was a remark by one of my professors that we tend to do an excellent job of filling in sounds that weren't really heard, and that when students first learn to read a spectrogram -- a transformation of an audio wave that gives much more precision to interpreting sounds -- we are often surprised. Either, we're shocked at how messy it all is, or more interestingly, we're shocked at what's absent. We "hear" sounds that weren't said, and we swear up and down we heard them. He told us a story about a former student who was a native Chinese speaker, who thought there was bait and switch going on with a recording of the word bijiao ('kind of' as in "that's kind of interesting."). 

So Aletheia and I, for a final project, went through a corpus of telephone speech and investigated pronunciation of the sound in the middle of bijiaorelated words, like jia. In words like bijiao, the middle is only actually pronounced about 10 percent of the time. The rest of the time, it's something like bshao or even biao (perhaps 'kinda' is a better translation...).

It may not be earth shattering, but it's kind of a neat finding, especially since deletion of the -ji- sound in bijiao is a little less expected than the /v/ sound in kind of (and yes, it's a /v/, not a /f/). Also, there's a literature on Taiwanese Mandarin speakers replacing some words, where it's argued that a casual form of bijiao is just biao, and our findings support that for mainland speakers, this seems not to be the case -- they're mostly just saying bijiao really fast, so the middle gets reduced, but it's not clear that they're trying to say a different word.

I think most of us English speakers are aware that we reduce things (e.g., gonna, or my go-to: Imunna), but when you start learning foreign languages, it becomes immediately clear the first time you speak with a native speaker that they are definitely not saying the words that our teachers taught us. This is in part what's happening: they're not speaking "too fast" or saying the words "wrong." It's just that native speakers are really good at filling in what's missing, and it's something we all do, all the time.




©Taylor Jones 2016

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