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UC Berkeley asks incoming students to say more than 'hello'

5,800 Berkeley freshmen and transfer students are asked to record their voices and accents, which will be mapped and compared to other students' samples. The project is part linguistic experiment, part social science and part ice-breaker.

July 17, 2011|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • UC Berkeley linguistics professor Keith Johnson said the project's goal is "to learn something about our population and also give the incoming class a chance to learn something about each other, just by listening to each other."
UC Berkeley linguistics professor Keith Johnson said the project's… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

A UC Berkeley freshman orientation program triggered national debate last year when it asked new students to send in saliva samples for voluntary DNA testing for three dietary traits.

The goal was to spark getting-to-know-you discussions about medicine and ethics, but privacy concerns and other problems derailed parts of the plan.

This summer, UC Berkeley is asking new students to submit a less controversial part of themselves: Their voices and accents.

The university's welcome-to-campus seminars in the fall will focus on linguistic diversity and the many cultural, scientific and psychological aspects of language. Along with helping the newcomers break the ice through shared readings and discussions, the campus' College of Letters & Science wants students to record their own speech in an ambitious Internet-based experiment to map and match accents from across the state and world.

With about 30% of incoming UC Berkeley students reporting that English was not their first language, exploring that linguistic diversity is a good way to help students feel comfortable at such a large school, faculty organizers said.

"It seemed like a good opportunity for me to learn something about our population and also give the incoming class a chance to learn something about each other, just by listening to each other," said linguistics professorKeith Johnson, who is leading the experiment.

Freshmen and transfer students have been asked to record, in English via the Web, a shout-out to Berkeley sports teams — "Go Bears!" — along with five mouth-stretching sentences, including: "She had your dark suit in greasy wash water all year." They then read an arithmetic problem in their native tongues, which could total about 50 languages.

The voice samples will be attached anonymously to an interactive world map so other participants can hear them, and each student will be matched through a voice recognition program with five others who have similar pronunciations, Johnson said.

One result will be an analysis of California accents, as researchers try to get beyond such stereotypes as the Surfer Dude, Valley Girl and Central Valley Farmer to study participants' vowel sounds, along with their locations, ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds.

After two years and perhaps again after four, students will be asked to make new recordings to determine whether being at UC homogenized their accents or pushed them into distinctive speech subgroups, Johnson said. (For example, he said, because of his Oklahoma upbringing, he pronounced "Don" and "dawn" identically in one of the experiment's exercises.)

Timothy Hampton, a professor of French and comparative literature who is one of the program's organizers, said he does not expect it to be as controversial as last year's. "Sending in a bit of your language is possibly less threatening than sending in a bit of your DNA," Hampton said.

Still, with last year's criticism in mind, organizers said all participation will be anonymous and those who are self-conscious about their accents can exclude their voices from the public map.

In addition to exploring their diverse backgrounds, students will discuss the language challenges graduates face as many work overseas, Hampton said. "They're going to be living in a multilingual context, and that's a really interesting thing for them to think about," he said.

So far, about 300 of 5,800 incoming freshmen and transfer students have submitted recordings. Officials hope about 1,500 will do so in time for some results to be used in the early September orientation sessions, called "Voices of Berkeley."

A few participants were goofing around, with one faking a French accent and another recording during a raucous party, Johnson said. The rest seemed to take it seriously.

Among those embracing the project was Chloe Hunt, 18, a freshman from Santa Barbara who said the voice map made her even more curious to meet students from many cultural backgrounds. "It made me think about who I'm going to be sitting next to in class," said Hunt, who learned Farsi from Iranian relatives.

Leah Grant, 41, who is transferring to UC Berkeley from Long Beach City College, said listening to the voice samples made her feel like part of the university already. The varying approaches also were amusing, she said.

"Some people read it very neutrally, very plain, and some people are putting some emotion and personality into it. That's kind of fun," said Grant, an anthropology major. She said she would also be interested to learn how much her Rhode Island accent has softened.

Nationwide, many colleges assign common summer readings to new students in advance of orientation seminars. Some also include community service projects; UCLA this year has asked new students to write letters to U.S. troops overseas.

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