24. An Acoustic Study of Vowels of English in esl and efl speech: Case of Arabic speakers Learning English in Delhi (esl) and Those Learning English in Cairo (efl) Asher R. Jesudoss



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24. An Acoustic Study of Vowels of English in ESL and EFL speech:

Case of Arabic speakers Learning English in Delhi (ESL) and Those Learning English in Cairo (EFL)

Asher R. Jesudoss

(Published in ‘Issues in Learning Theories and Pedagogical Practices’, an Orient Blackswan Publication, edited by Prof. Vaishna Narang)



Introduction

The aim of this study is to measure the acoustic space of the vowels of English as spoken by two groups of learners—speakers of Arabic learning English as a second language in Delhi, India; and those learning English as a foreign language in Cairo, Egypt. The assumption is that learners in a second language environment will be able to form a distinct vowel space for a language faster than those learning the language in a foreign language environment. Also, one would expect the distinction between the vowel spaces to be greater in Delhi than in Cairo. The objectives of this experiment are to analyse vowel sounds produced in a controlled environment by Arabic speakers of English (both Arabic vowel sounds and English vowel sounds) and to map the vowel spaces of an individual speaker in each language with that in the other language. Based on this mapping, which was a result of the recording of vowel samples and analysing them using software like Wave surfer, we wanted to find out if there is a difference between:

                     Vowel space of English in ESL (Delhi) and English in EFL (Cairo)

                     Vowel space of English and Arabic in an ESL situation

                     Vowel space of English and Arabic in an EFL situation

                     Vowel space of Arabic spoken in Cairo and Arabic spoken in Delhi



Acoustic Phonetics

Through the spectrographic analysis of the vowel sounds recorded, we can plot the frequencies and therefore determine the relative position of a vowel sound and also determine the vowel space of a particular speaker of a particular language. Vowels can be categorised mainly in terms of three features:

1)      Vowel height— which is inversely proportional to the frequency of the first formant.

2)      Degree of backness—which is proportional to the difference between the frequencies of the first and second formants.

3)      The degree of rounding—which has complex correlates.             

Given below is a three dimensional diagram or vowel space, and the arrows indicate the flow of air as we breathe. The shape of the tongue within the vowel space is what gives the vowel sound its quality, besides the shape of the lips. (Source: Ladefoged, 1982).

                  http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image002.jpg

Vowel Space using Acoustic Phonetics

It is possible to analyse sounds so that we can measure the actual frequencies of the formants. We can then represent them graphically as well. This is because of the invention of the sound spectrograph, which translates sound into a visual representation. When one converts vowels to a waveform, there is a certain way in which these parameters can be calculated. The first formant often corresponds to the height of the vowel, while the difference between the first and second formants indicates the frontness or backness of the vowel. The third formant indicates, to a certain extent, the degree of rounding of the lips. When the difference between the first two formants is plotted against the first formant, we get something quite close to the position of the tongue as calculated by articulatory phonetics.



Preparation and Ground Work

The first step of the study  was to conduct some research on Arabic vowel sounds in order to identify the sounds that are closest to their English counterparts, and also in order to identify the target vowel sounds to be analysed.

The second step was to identify the vowel phonemes in each language. Next, a list of five short listed words was created (in Arabic), and then another list of English words with similar vowel sounds was created. The speakers were each given 5 target vowel sounds in Arabic, and the equivalent sounds in English. All these vowel sounds were placed in carefully chosen words, wherein the vowel sounds occurred in a similar syllabic structure (CVC), in order to minimise variations.

The next step was to look for speakers of the language in the right age group and with similar exposure to the languages at hand. The sample we took consisted of students at the universities who were 20–25 years of age, and had learnt English as a second/foreign language in school, and had learnt Arabic in their childhood, either as their mother tongue, or/and as a language of recitation of the Quran.

The subjects were all male, in the age group of 20–25, the age when students graduate from college and look for jobs. One purpose of this paper is also to gauge the level of English proficiency attained by a speaker in either country at this age, as the greater the proficiency, the better chances of getting a job in today’s globalised world. We preferred to study subjects of the same gender, as this reduces anomlies that may arise due to the difference of frequency between the voices of men and women. The subjects were students from Cairo University in Egypt, and Jawharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

Each speaker was made to speak each word thrice (the tone of the speaker often varies during each production, and the second articulation is usually the one where the tone is even throughout the utterance.) In all we had 5 vowel sounds in English and 5 vowel sounds in Arabic that were to be analysed. 10 speakers uttering each vowel sound thrice made it a total of 10*10*3 = 300 recordings to be analysed.



The Survey

The aims and objectives, as stated at the beginning of the study, were to conduct an acoustic analysis of the vowel sounds produced by Arabic speaking learners of English in an ESL environment (Delhi) and in an EFL environment (Cairo) in order to find out if there is a difference between:

                     Vowel space of English in ESL (Delhi) and English in EFL (Cairo)

                     Vowel space of English and Arabic in an ESL situation

                     Vowel space of English and Arabic in an EFL situation

                     Vowel space of Arabic spoken in Cairo and Arabic spoken in Delhi

The acoustic space was calculated for the following:

                     Arabic vowel sounds produced by learners in Cairo

                     Arabic vowel sounds produced by learners in Delhi

                     English vowel sounds produced by learners in Cairo

                     English vowel sounds produced by learners in Delhi

Following this, the mapping was done at four levels

                     Mapping of Arabic vowels and English vowels as produced by learners in Cairo

                     Mapping of Arabic vowels and English vowels as produced by learners in Delhi

                     Mapping of Arabic vowels produced by learners in Cairo with those produced by learners in Delhi

                     Mapping of English vowels produced by learners in Cairo with those produced by learners in Delhi.

The assumption was that the distinction between the vowel space of Arabic (the native language of the speakers) and that of English (the second/foreign language of the speakers) would be greater in an ESLenvironment as compared to an EFL environment. For this, the following steps were taken.

1.                   The cities, vowel phonemes, word-lists, subjects were identified.

2.                   The word recordings of the subjects were then fed into a computer software (Wave surfer) and the values of F1 and (F2-F1) were calculated.

3.                  The averages of these values of f1 and f2-f1 were then calculated and the graph for the vowel space for each speaker in each language was then drawn by plotting all the vowel sounds of that speaker in that language in one chart so that the resultant plot resembled the cardinal vowel chart.

4.                   These steps were followed for each speaker in both languages.

5.                   The vowel space for each speaker in one language was then mapped with the vowel space for the same speaker in the other language.

6.                   The averages of each set of subjects was then calculated

7.                   These averages were then mapped against each other in four different ways:

                     Mapping of Arabic vowels and English vowels as produced by learners in Cairo.

                     Mapping of Arabic vowels and English vowels as produced by learners in Delhi.

                     Mapping of Arabic vowels produced by learners in Cairo with those produced by learners in Delhi.

                     Mapping of English vowels produced by learners in Cairo with those produced by learners in Delhi.



Observations and important results

Based on the averages of each set of speakers in each language:



C1-5/A (The average Arabic vowel space as produced by the subjects in Cairo)

1.                   The vowel space in Egyptian Arabic is represented by a triangle, with the extremes being formed by /i/, /u/ and /æ/.



C1-5/E (The average English vowel space as produced by the subjects in Cairo)

2.                   The vowel space in English remains a quadrilateral, as it is supposed to be. However, the open vowel sounds, as we can see, are not open enough. The vowels are restricted to closed and half open vowel sounds



D1-5/A (The average Arabic vowel space as produced by the subjects in Delhi)

3.                   A vowel quadrilateral, formed by /i/, /u/, /a/ and /æ/.

4.                   The /æ/, however remains more of a back vowel, although it is more fronted compared to the /a/.

5.                   The /o/ is definitely a central vowel sound in this accent, and is not a peripheral vowel



D1-5/E (The average English vowel space as produced by the subjects in Delhi)

6.                   A vowel quadrilateral is formed by the peripheral vowels - /i/, /u/, /a/ and /æ/.

7.                   However, the figure actually is more of a pentagon, as the /o/ in English is retracted further behind compared to the /u/ and the /a/.

Based on the mapping of the averages:     

CD 1-5/A

http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image004.jpg

1.                   The vowel space remains fairly similar in terms of area. However, certain key differences observed are:

2.                   The Arabic /i/ produced by the speakers in Cairo is more fronted and more closed than that produced by the speakers in Delhi. The difference in f2-f1 values is 71 Hz and the difference in f1 values is 86 Hz.

3.                   The Arabic /u/ produced by both sets of speakers is fairly identical

4.                   The Arabic /o/ as spoken by subjects in Delhi tend more towards the centre of the vowel space, while the Arabic /o/ spoken by the subjects in Cairo occurs as a back vowel. It is also more open than its counterpart produced by the subjects in Delhi. The difference in f2-f1 values is 168 Hz and the difference in f1 values is  30 Hz.

5.                   The Arabic /æ/ as spoken by the subjects in Cairo is completely a back vowel sound, while it is partially back as spoken by the subjects in Delhi.

6.                   The Arabic /a/ as spoken by the subjects in Cairo is more closed and fronted as compared to that produced by the subjects in Delhi.

C1-5/AE

http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image006.jpg

7.                   The English /i/ is marginally more fronted than the Arabic /i/

8.                   The English /u/ and the Arabic /u/ almost coincide with each other

9.                   The English /a/ and the English /o/ are more back and open as compared to their Arabic counterparts.

10.               The Arabic /æ/ gains a clear distinction compared to the English /æ/. While the latter is a front open vowel, the former is a back open vowel. The difference in f2-f1 values is 600 Hz, while the difference in f1 values is around 240 Hz.

11.               The English vowel space is a quadrilateral formed by /i/, /u/, /a/ and /æ/, while the Arabic vowel space is a triangle formed by /i/, /u/, and /æ/.



CD 1-5/E

http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image008.jpg

12.               The values for the English /i/ for both sets of speakers are fairly identical

13.               The English /u/ is marginally more back for the subjects in Cairo

14.               The English /o/ is more open and back for the subjects in Delhi.

15.               The English /a/ is way more open in Delhi, as compared to those in Cairo. The difference in f2-f1 values is 78 Hz and the difference in f1 values is  172 Hz.

16.               The English /æ/ is also way more open for the subjects in Delhi, as compared to the subjects in Cairo. The difference in f2-f1 values is 92 Hz and the difference in f1 values is 133 Hz.

17.               The English vowel space for the subjects from Cairo is restricted when it comes to the f1 range. In articulatory terms this corresponds to the tongue height, where the vowels are restricted to the articulatory space between closed position and half open position.

D1-5/AE

http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image010.jpg

18.               The English /i/ is more closed and more fronted compared to the Arabic /i/ for the subjects from Delhi.

19.               The English /u/ and the Arabic /u/ pretty much coincide with each other.

20.               The Arabic /o/ sound as spoken by the subjects in Delhi occurs at a central position, and is not a peripheral vowel, while the /o/ sound in English is further back than any other vowel sound. This stark contrast is a very interesting observation. The difference in f2-f1 values is 372 Hz and the difference in f1 values is  115 Hz.

21.               The Arabic /æ/ produced by speakers in Delhi is further back as compared to the English /æ/, which remains a front open vowel sound. The difference in f2-f1 values is 401 Hz and the difference in f1 values is  117 Hz.

22.               The Arabic /a/ is more closed as compared to the English /a/. The difference in f2-f1 values is 43 Hz and the difference in f1 values is  75 Hz.

23.               The Arabic vowel space is clearly affected probably owing to contact with other local and regional languages, since all the subjects in the study are multilingual.

Variance

The following graphs were generated to sum up the variance in (f2-f1) values and   (-f1) values for each of the vowel sounds. The key to the graphs has been mentioned below:

 

Vowel 1

Vowel 2

Vowel 3

Vowel 4

Vowel 5

/a/

/æ/

/i/

/u/

/o/

 

The following graph represents the variance in (f2-f1) and f1 values between the Arabic vowels as spoken in Cairo and the English vowels as spoken in Cairo:



http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image012.jpg

The following graph represents the variance in (f2-f1) and f1 values between the Arabic vowels as spoken in Cairo and the Arabic vowels as spoken in Delhi:



http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image014.jpg

The following graph represents the variance in (f2-f1) and f1 values between the English vowels as spoken in Cairo and the English vowels as spoken in Delhi:



http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image016.jpg

The following graph represents the variance in (f2-f1) and f1 values between the Arabic vowels as spoken in Delhi and the English vowels as spoken in Delhi:



http://odssonline.com/aboutus/acoustic_study_vowels_files/image018.jpg

The source data for the graphs above has also been tabulated below. The chart clearly highlights the vowel sounds that have a high variance in f2-f1/f1 values.



 

 

Cairo Arabic/Cairo English

 

Cairo Arabic/Delhi Arabic

 

a

-120.055

50.12446786

a

-84.8974

147.2450839

 

æ

630.4651

-243.328196

æ

136.8698

5.875185547

 

i

84.88694

12.35648402

i

-70.9781

86.25538979

 

u

-8.67678

4.623538668

u

34.66744

-4.396566156

 

o

-82.4708

40.61876422

o

168.7524

-29.97306819

 

 

Cairo English/Delhi English

 

Delhi Arabic/Delhi English

 

a

77.93661

171.9784699

a

42.77911

74.85785381

 

æ

-92.2689

132.703081

æ

401.3264

-116.5003005

 

i

30.27152

22.08870701

i

186.1365

-51.81019876

 

u

58.94456

3.600179957

u

15.60034

12.62028478

 

o

-120.751

44.57447069

o

-371.974

115.1663031

Colour Code

 

 

 

 

 

Legend

Low (0-50 Hz)

Mid (50-100Hz)

High (100-200 Hz)

Extremely High (>200 Hz)

 





































Conclusion

As can be confirmed from the bar graphs above, the open vowels are the ones with the most variance, while the variance amongst the closed vowels is minimal. Some vowel sounds that stand out in terms of contrast are the /æ/ sound in Arabic and English as spoken in Cairo, the /æ/ sound in Arabic and English, as spoken in Delhi, and the /o/ sound in Arabic and English, as spoken in Delhi. Some others with a less degree, yet substantial amount of variance are Arabic /a/ in Cairo, the Arabic /æ/ and /o/ between Cairo and Delhi, the English /a/, /æ/ and /o/ between Cairo and Delhi, and the English /i/ between Delhi English and Delhi Arabic. From the graphs and tables above, a number of interesting details have sprung up. In articulatory terms, one can easily observe that in Delhi, the Arabic vowel /æ/ has moved to a more fronted position as compared to the Arabic /æ/ in Cairo. This could be because of the contact with several of the local Indian languages, wherein /æ/ is an open vowel. We can also see that the Arabic /a/ in Delhi is at a more open position as compared to the Arabic /a/ in Cairo. This could also be attributed to the language contact situation in India. We can also observe that although the Arabic /æ/ produced in Cairo is an open, back vowel, this does not get translated to the English /æ/, which remains a front vowel, however, only partially open. The vowel space in the English spoken by the subjects in Cairo is restricted in terms of openness. This is not the case in English, as spoken by the subjects in Delhi, where the vowel chart resembles the Cardinal vowel chart more closely. We see that all three open vowels - /æ/, /a/ and /o/ - are far more open than their counterparts in the vowel chart representing the sounds produced by the subjects in Cairo. We see that the English vowel space for the speakers in Delhi is larger and broader as compared to their Arabic vowel space.

Also, a couple of other extremely interesting observations are that the Arabic /a/ being a back vowel in Cairo and the Arabic /o/ being a central vowel in Delhi. In terms of the vowel spaces, it is clearly visible that the English vowel space of the subjects in Cairo is restricted in terms of f1 values, and is therefore more or less limited within their Arabic vowel space. The English vowel space for the subjects from Delhi, on the other hand, is wider, wherein the open vowel sounds are completely realized, and we can see a clear separation of the English vowel space from the Arabic vowel space. This supports our initial assumption that the distinction between two vowel spaces would be greater in an ESL environment (Delhi) as compared to an EFL environment (Cairo).

Future Projections

The study has certainly presented us with a lot of existing data to base future hypotheses on. A number of conclusions can be drawn by the location of all vowels in their respective acoustic spaces. There is a lot more potential and a lot of analyses can be done on the data available. This data gives us a direction for further study. Also, similar studies with much larger data bases from both ESL and EFL environments is required in order to be able to draw more conclusive results. Such studies with a larger database will have implications in both learner language studies and in language pedagogy. Moreover, English is taught as a second language/foreign language almost throughout the world. Similar exercises at other locations would perhaps yield hypotheses regarding the distinction between acquisition (in a second language environment) and learning (in a foreign language environment). The possibilities, given sufficient time and resources, can be be further explored, streamlined, mapped and studied in a manner appropriate to the variety of possibilities that have opened up.



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