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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chicago: the place of accents

The city of Chicago, in the State of Illinois, is one of the paradises for researchers of language. It is a city with a large migratory flow which allows listening to multiple accents, languages living together and communicating every day.

Chicago is the largest city in the State and the third most populated in the United States. You can hear many languages but you can also hear many accents as these bilingual people speak English.

You will find many people from around the world that speak the English language well, but always with accent of their native language.  Their accent is the result of different variables that influence the degree of their accent when a second language is spoken. For example, the age when the second language is learned, time of stay in the country where they used the second language, gender, formal instruction, motivation, skills for learning the language and quality and quantity of the native language (Thorsten, MacKay & Flege, 2001).

The latest 2010 census shows that the linguistic variety is due in part to the diversity of nationalities of the residents of the city, which are 2,695,598 people, and mean 1,045,560 families. Chicago is also one of the most densely populated cities in the country. The racial makeup of the city is the following: 45.0% white (whites non-Hispanic of 31.7%); 32.9% African-American, 13.4% from some other race, 5.5% Asian (1.6% Chinese, Indian 1.1%, 1.1% Filipino, 0.4% Korean, Pakistani 0.3%, Vietnamese of 0.3%, 0.2% Japanese, Thai of 0.1%); 2.7% from two or more races, 0.5% Native American. 

Hispanics or Latinos make up the third largest race in Chicago at 28.9%.  This group of Chicagonans came from several Latin America countries: 21.4% Mexican, Puerto Rican 3.8%, 0.7% Guatemala, 0.6% Ecuadorian 0.3% Cuban, Colombian 0.3%, 0.2% Honduran, Salvadoran 0.2%, 0.2% Peruvian. 

Eastern Europeans and people from Africa also make up a minor percentage of the people living in Chicago as well. Lastly, those traveling to Chicago for vacation or family should also be considered. 

It is natural that with such a large number of foreign languages, people will mix and match that own language with English, creating interesting mistakes with the English language.

It’s always a fun exercise is to listen to the speakers and try to determine where they come from. When speaking with academics, it’s much easier to guess where the speaker is from. For example, a Spanish speaker can determine the difference not only from one country to another but the regional differences in his native country.

Learning a language in its oral form means to learn the sounds, words and grammatical rules of this as well as particular prosody (Peña-Garay, 2005). This component is also related to the specific region where it is native.

More nearby is the geographical location least different is the intonation, but as away geographically, the prosodic difference becomes more noticeable, along with many other linguistic schemes. It is very easy to distinguish between a Mexican accent and a Spanish one, but it is not so easy even for the Hispanic speakers, distinguish between a Honduran and a Guatemalan speaker.
That’s why some researchers seek the identification of the prosodic characteristic features of regions from, for instance intonation structure or parameters of duration and intensity (Ramirez Verdugo, 2005). 

These features are interspersed with learning another language. But the prosody is that allows linguistic clues sometimes save the limitation of the vocabulary within a conversation. Maybe not understanding all the words but intonation does know whether someone is asking something or is denoting a complaint. 

Although the prosody is perceived through the language, this is added a visual component in the form of facial expressions, which denote the communication is socially relevant (Jaywant & Pell, 2012). It is that interaction face to face, persons can  understand the meaning of a sentence even when not understood the verbal message, facial expression will help to decipher the message and ultimately allows the required question: Sorry, what did you say?.

Why is learning the words of a second language not enough? Because the words of the second language is only a component of communication. It is necessary to add the prosody as well as the intonation which gives the emotional content of each phrase. Some might say this is not as important between speakers of the same language (however, it is) but it is vital between bilingual speakers. The prosody and intonation is what allows someone to understand if the person is asking them a question or giving them an order. When the body language is added to the conversation, the words become secondary and understanding is achieved through the prosody and facial expressions.

Mimicking the prosody during the verbal production adds another component to language (Crystal, 2012), although sometimes this is more difficult than learning the words. There are theories that explain a pre-internal articulation, rather than the pronunciation of the word. This means we heard internally every sound before producing the word (Huettig and Hartsuiker, 2010). Even so, the intersections of the native language will always be a constraint. There will be sounds that a bilingual cannot imitate fully, even if during the mental review, the sounds are the right ones.

That's why Chicago is my favorite city to enjoy the accents, and the cultural linguistic combination, where the Spanglish is common and same person speaks a phrase with a full Spanish and the following sentence it said in English and then mixes it, or is common to listen to parusglish, where the Russian and the English get together. There is nothing more melodious than listening to Hindu’s speaking with their multiple variations or attempt to recognize the difference between the Asian languages. 

Nobody cares about your accent when you’re craving a pizza or taco or hamburger, it's the cultural experience that matters the most.

Alma Dzib Goodin

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Crystal, D. (2012) On quotatives (he goes). Available at:

Huettig, f. and Hartsuiker, RJ.(2010) Listening to yourself is like listening to others: External,but not internal, verbal self-monitoring is based on speech perception. Language and Cognitive Processes 25 (3) 347-374.

Jaywant, a. and Pell, MD. (2012) Categorical processing of negative emotions from speech prosody. Speech Communication. 54 (2012) 1-10.

Peña-Garay, M. (2005) Aproximación a la prosodia del habla de Madrid.Rev. Neurol. 41 (5) 291-298.

Ramirez Verdugo. MD. (2005) Approximation to the Prosody of speech in Madrid. Studies of Experimental Phonetics. 14. 311-326.

Thorsten, P, MacKay, ANGER., and Flege, JE. (2001) Factors affecting degree of foreign accent in an L2: a review. Journal of Phonetics. 29 (2) 191-215.

World Population Review (2012) Illinois Population 2012. Available online:


  1. It's an excelent and cool description of prsody!. Really good post!

    1. Thanks! I had this idea since some months ago. Every day I can enjoy so many different accents just talking with my neighboors:)

  2. How is the development of Prosody?, Does prosody is linked with language?, should prosody and language develop together?

    1. These are excellent questions, and just the kind of questions I appreciate most, I will respond to each one:

      - How is the development of Prosody?
      It’s given by both environmental such as neuronal molding. And apparently occurs naturally in most people, Have you noticed when an adult sees a baby, the tone of voice changes?, voice becomes sweet, adult exaggerates his or her words, it seems that he or she sings. That's the way babies begin to recognize that natural singing. This happens even when we are front not human babies.
      The baby learns that along with the words there is an intonation, and you must add the emotional recognition which is very important as specie, so babies will gradually learn to link the face and intonation. Little by little, it will make sounds that are song, and his face reflects that emotion. And sometimes adults conducting dialogues with them, which will further strengthen the Prosody.

      If addition if we sing to a baby this is going to be an intensifier even better the modulation. However, the brain identifies the sounds differentially. It has the sounds of the language, environmental sounds (noise), music, and singing.

      I've seen parents who speak them with pseudo-words to children, but with an exaggerated Prosody, and what happens is that children in the long run have difficulties with language, but an excellent Prosody modulation and recognition.

      - Does prosody is linked with language?,
      If you listen to someone speaking with a clear intonation of the language, it seems that both complement each other. Particularly in tonal languages, and they are the majorities. However, you can have and prosody without language, like when you play to speak but do not say anything, and you can have language without Prosody in some children with autistic spectrum disorders or by children with disorders of communication and language, for instance deaf children come to my mind.

      If you try to get brain image of the prosody, it has been difficult to "see" the exact paths of Prosody, when you only have the Prosody, the brain does not know to identify between singing and music, and that momentary mistake can create interference in the data. But it is clear that it requires both hemispheres for the identification and the Corpus Callosum plays an important role in the interaction.

      Well, now you must remember that you have the Prosody modulation and Prosody understanding, is not only the understanding, which is why you need nearby but different areas.

      When you have language without a clear Prosody, is complicated understanding. The example I use is with Latin people who don't speak English and I ask you to listen to a specific song by Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant has the quality of singing in monotonous. People have no idea that says and the key is the music, but the music can be slow and sounds them sad, even if the letter is cheerful.

      When you have the whole set, it is easier. But if you have language and intonation, but facial expression doesn't help, then you may have another problem. Such is the case of Andrea Bocelli. So that is easy to find that it’s necessary the complete set.

      - Should prosody and language develop together?

      It is ideal, but it’s not always the case. And if they do not come together then you will have a somewhat disturbing language, for example people talking with monotonous that may sound "boring".

      Children with autism, for example, that they do not recognize the Prosody, but they understand the language.

      If the Prosody is not present, maybe you don't understand the jokes or wordplay.

      Well, now comes a time when adults naturally stop talking to children with such exaggeration Prosody, and if children do not learn it, then maybe you can going to neuronal pruning and will cause problems. So there is a critical time to learn it. But when children learn to read, and if not reinforcing the Prosody, you readers without intonation, so always I suggest stories tellers for children who are new readers.