UWI study finds 'Jamaican' English is unique

UWI study finds 'Jamaican' English is unique

Staff reporter

Sunday, June 28, 2020

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A new study by The University of the West Indies, Mona campus, has sought to establish Jamaican Standard English as a distinct variation of the English language.

The study focuses on the acoustic properties of Jamaican English, and was part of a multidisciplinary project at the Department of Physics to develop an automated literacy tutor for Jamaican children.

“The broader context is that we want to be able to use speech and language technologies, such as speech recognition or speech synthesis, in the assistance with education in Jamaica.

“We have the capacity at The UWI, Mona to use and develop speech recognition and synthesis technologies. Why not employ them to assist with vulnerable groups, such as children who are struggling to read or with the disabled, to develop assistant technologies for them,” senior physics lecturer in The Faculty of Science and Technology, Dr Andre Coy told the Jamaica Observer.

The research, which involved the collation of speech models from 360 primary school students across 12 schools in the Kingston and St Andrew area, found that Jamaican English had its own distinct phonetic qualities compared the American and British Standard English.

“The fact is that we in Jamaica have developed our own unique variety of English, even though we were told to speak the Queen's English because of Jamaica being a former British colony. But our version of English has become its own unique brand of English with its own acoustic nuances,” said postgraduate student at the UWI Mona, Stefan Watson.

The electronics major explained that he conducted the study to determine the efficiency of current speech recognition technology in deciphering Jamaican English.

“I needed to justify collecting a corpus of speech for Jamaican English because software like the ones that we are trying to develop already exists for other forms of English. We had to analyse the speech of Jamaican children versus two other well known varieties of English, which were the British Standard English and the American Standard English.

“Even though there is software for both versions of English, we would still need our own corpus of speech in order to develop our own software specifically for Jamaican children,” said Watson, adding that accent distinction was a minimal factor in the study.

“My research was based on the acoustic properties of speech. This has to do with how you sound — not necessarily accent, but the tone and pitch. There was some accent distinction, but not much,” said Watson.

According to Dr Coy, the study also highlighted the minimal influence of British and American Standard English on the phonetics of Jamaican English.

“The fact that it [Jamaican English] was derived from British English, you would expect to find a lingering effect of the British English on the way that we would pronounce certain letters. But that effect is very minimal.

“Beyond that, there seems to be little to no effect of American English on the way that we pronounce words. That to me was unusual because of the exposure that we have to American English through television and the number of American visitors to the island. We didn't see a significant effect. So, the Jamaican was very distinct from the British and American English,” said Dr Coy.

He also said that the nuances of Jamaican speech, given the general use of Patois and code switching between Jamaican English and the local dialect, presented a limitation in the study in that the speech recognition technology would not be equipped to assist Jamaican students who do not speak Standard English.

“We did this specifically for Jamaican children who speak English. We know that many Jamaican children do not speak English so what we are working on is a prototype, and by its very nature will be limited. It is limited to children who have some command of the English language; they don't have to be perfect but they understand how to speak Jamaican English, and secondly, it is limited to the Kingston and St Andrew area. This is specifically because of a limitation in funding,” said Dr Coy.

“There are plans to enlarge the data set to make it available to the wider Jamaica. One of the ideas is to do what is called a language map of Jamaican English so that we can understand the nuances of Jamaican accents. So this would capture why, for example, children in south-east St Elizabeth would have a distinct accent, versus upper St Andrew, versus downtown, and so on,” he added.

“But what we are aiming to do is initially to develop the application or a limited group, and then once we have the prototype to show that it can work with the limited group, then we can expand the study to larger regions in Jamaica as well as to incorporate models that would recognise children who do not have a strong grasp of English and speak only Jamaican.”

The study also aims to determine the influence of African languages on Jamaican speech.

“Whether the distinction is in the African roots is something that we have not been able to explore, but it is something that we are now open to exploring. Now that we have these findings, we can say there is a significant difference between these three varieties of English, we can now explore why Jamaican is so different and where those differences have come from,” Dr Coy stated.

In the meantime, he said that the study has provided a framework for the development of the automated tutor that will assist Jamaican children in their learning experience.

“We are working with other colleagues currently to move forward with the development of a prototype and there are parts of the project that are ready.

“The idea is to develop this assistive device which a student can use pretty much independently once they have been given an introduction of how to use it, and over time it will help them to develop their literacy skills and they would then be able to benefit from everything else that goes on in the classroom.

“It would be as if they were working with a tutor and it would be developed using artificial intelligence techniques and speech recognition techniques. It would respond sort of like a human tutor would.

“And there are some studies that show that similar approaches have gotten results which are almost the same, if not better in some instances, of having a human tutor would in the classroom,” said Dr Coy.

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