Article written in 2017
In a multicultural and multilingual London, a majority of non-native speakers make great efforts to learn English and improve their pronunciation to be understood by native speakers with intelligibility and clarity. Although English as language is universal and an example of how borders have become more porous between countries (Mackensie, 2014), it also raises a discriminating and invisible wall against cultural diversity. Foreign English accents might complicate the on-going process of social and cultural inclusion of their holders given that their distinctive variations in pronunciation may evoke certain attitudes, stereotypes and the struggle for positive distinctiveness (Beinhoff, 2013). Some consonants may not be pronounced; some words may be too long. Nevertheless, these accents as cultural markers expressing foreigners’ uniqueness are also a way of recognising ‘that different people have different ways of doing things with words’ (Piller, 2011: 40). Raising consciousness on the basis of this difference is also remembering that there are human beings behind languages as well as a wide range of cultural variations. Aware of this contrasted reality, because of my own experience and some of my acquaintances when living in London, I decided to realise a sensory research project seeking to explore the visualisation of foreign English accents and how this data may have an impact on viewers. To enhance this work, I read Gilles Deleuze’s book Difference and Repetition (1994) and the extracts where language is mentioned as, for Deleuze, repetition in speech and writing give an infinite existence to necessarily finite words. Hence, my investigation has put in practice a repetitive and participatory exercise where accents are listened to, analysed, visualised and lastly experienced.
For Gilles Deleuze (1994), the definition of “difference” is the condition for identity. It seems that ‘real difference is a matter of how things become different, how they evolve and continue to evolve beyond the boundaries of the sets they have been distributed into’ (Williams, 2003: 60). For instance, the becoming of an insignificant accent in repetitive words and sentences is significant in representing changes of a negotiated identity. So, why does accent matter? As it usually reflects the place where a person comes from, some people will try to eliminate their sign of foreignness as much as possible to assimilate the English culture while others will desire to cherish it as fruit of their identity. I asked myself how I could visualise voice variations before they evolve and experiment gradual modifications over time. Physical registers of accent’s intangibility could be compared to materialising a memory. In that regard, my approach should make possible ‘to hear with our eyes and see with our ears’ (Piller, 2011: 130), extracting the visual and sensory information contained in an accent, bearer of change, that is unique with no equal or equivalent.
The project: We come from your Future (2008) by Ultra-red let me see that through a tape recorder, sounds of anti-racism can enhance the dynamics and stories of local communities in their struggle for a more equal society. Thus, the first experiment of this research project consisted of interviewing my own accent, a non-native pronunciation of English, and to reflect on how the voice as a mean can be embedded in a text and a context influencing our personal understanding of the message. For that, in the British library’s website I found an extract of The Booke of Sir Thomas More (Act 2, Scene 4) by William Shakespeare, a playtext manuscript that he wrote by the late 16th-century. Sir Thomas More’s speech expresses an impassioned plea for sympathy and understanding towards London’s migrants and refugees confronting the aggressive mob that wanted to banish these foreign newcomers. He asks them to imagine what it would be like to be in their situation, equally vulnerable to attacks and forced repatriation:
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers.
At that time, London was already a cosmopolitan city housing thousands of immigrants. The text is then embedded in an historical and emotional context where words carry a powerful energy across time. Ironically, they also could be shouted out loud today making us recover the values that they defended. I then recorded myself reading the first sentence of the paragraph. Thereafter, I isolated the words to better distinguish vowels and consonants with my voice on set time, and I tried to explore the relation between sounds and image through vocal visualizer software, but without great success as they could not tell any relevant information about my accent.
However, Beinhoff’s research on foreign accents (2013) made me discover spectrograms for speech analysis. Spectrograms are visual representations of an acoustic signal, displaying the amplitude changes of the frequency components over time while carrying new information about speakers’ voiceprints. Time is visualised on the horizontal axis, frequency on the vertical axis and amplitude by the degree of shading. The dark black bends show the intensity of the sound. As spectrograms give valuable information about our vocal tract resonances, I downloaded and studied the software Praat, mainly used for the scientific analysis of speech in phonetics. For example, with my own pronounciation, I visualised difficulties in pronouncing the word ‘As’ (/s/ instead of /z/), and there was also a very high intensity over time in the sound ‘sh’ of the word ‘banish’. The accent was also visible in the length of vowels, observed through the tonalities of grey. According to Bolt et al. (1970: 598), when two people speak the same word, their articulation can be similar but not identical, and it is this difference in the similarity that what I was chasing.
As Shakespeare’s text represents collective indignation, compassion and it is associated to discriminations that are often forgotten, I decided to give a voice to few foreigners and to empower them through the reading and the adjustment of these six sentences to their own reality. Since language is communicative, informational and representational of social life, we could consider emotional discourse as a form of social action that has its impact on people. For this exercise, I interviewed three young foreign women living in London, respectively from China, India and Brazil, who were asked to read individually the same text twice. The first reading was produced using their neutral tone while the second reading expressed their personal feeling towards the text’s connotations. As the expression of a protest implies repeating the same sentences over and over, I asked them to imagine a disturbing crowd in front of them to which they had to talk to, knowing that its desire is to banish them, foreigners of England. Later on, they had to explain what they felt reading the text so I could record, write and print their personal statement for the exhibition in which I would show my work. The whole sequence followed the IVSA ethics guidelines and respected participants’ privacy given that I met them in calm and safe spaces and I clearly explained the intentions of the project, avoiding then any misunderstanding or discomfort feelings.
Editing the participants’ speech with the Praat software could last more than a day. The process consisted to isolate each single word, to print them all, to cut and to stick them separately on a greyboard until to create a sentence, and to stick each sentence on a black foamboard until to have the whole extract. According to Pribil and Pribilova (2010) emotions can be read through spectrograms, comparing the same spoken sentence in different prosodies (neutral speech, anger or sad emotions). As the three voices carried emotional meaning, it became possible to analyse their variations depending on the mood, their cultural sensibilities and the context in which they were immersed. I then designed a booklet summarising how differences and similarities can be found in this visual data through the pitch, loudness, timbre, speech rate and pauses of their readings. The particularity of these sentences’ representation is hidden in the details, given that they seem similar at first sight but differ in many words. At last, I asked myself how to curate sociology with a text, deciding to translate the three interviews into a sound installation where anyone could see and listen to the accents. The visual data allowed the audience to navigate these individual narratives and shared interpretations, as they were asked at the end “what does this text mean to you?” For some people, it supposed a reflection about inequality while for others it represented a visualised dataset interpreting voices. To make this project interactive, it would have required an additional plinth with a microphone, speakers and an Ipad in order to allow visitors to stand on a wooden stage repeating loudly the same six sentences and seeing, at the same time, the spectrograms’ variations of their voices through the Ipad, encouraging different kind of responses towards an endless reflective practice.