Monday, March 21, 2011

This is your brain on IPA.

Word going round is that your phonetics friends' brains are wired different than yours. Kudos for being special. In a brain science article with an amazingly low number of authors, Golestani, Price and Scott (Journal of Neuroscience, 16 March 2001, 31(11):4213-4220) may provide one reason why transcription training has waned in years from phonetics programs--and I thought it was due to the prevalence of open source phonetic programs (anyone heard of Praat?) or the dropping of prices of computing processing (anymore anyone heard of IBM?).

From their abstract:
Phoneticians were also more likely to have multiple or split left transverse gyri in the auditory cortex than nonexpert controls, and the amount of phonetic transcription training did not predict auditory cortex morphology.

This is evidence backing the annoying 'how many languages do you speak' question from nonlinguists--well, at least for the phoneticians (anymore anyone heard of syntax and semantics?) At least phonologists can justify those two obligatory weeks teaching phonetics at the beginning of the semester.

So what do they think is the source of the difference between phoneticians' and nonphoneticians' brains:
The transverse gyri are thought to be established in utero; our results thus suggest that this gross morphological difference may have existed before the onset of phonetic training, and that its presence confers an advantage of sufficient magnitude to affect career choices.

After reading these quotes from the abstract, the authors say this at the beginning of the last paragraph in the article:
In conclusion, our results demonstrate that extensive training with speech sound analysis, and maybe even with articulation- based approaches, can lead to plastic changes in Broca’s area. This has potential implications for training-related remediation for individuals with phonological difficulties (e.g., developmental dyslexia), and in the domain of second language learning.

So is it training or no training? I'm not brain guy (haven't used it in years) and look forward to digger further in this paper to figure out how one gets from results demonstrating that training doesn't matter to implications that training matters. I'll stop now, my brain really does hurt, and look forward to waking up to hear what the extra strength brain of Mark Liberman of Language Log has to say.

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