In the UCSC Bilingualism Research Lab, Associate Professor Mark Amengual performs acoustic analyses, like this one (top panel) for the pronunciation of the trilled “r” in the Spanish word “perro” (“dog” in English), as study participants produce target experimental words in a soundproof booth. The second panel shows the recording’s voice onset time (VOT), a measurement of the duration (usually milliseconds) between the release of a plosive consonant, such as the ‘p’ in ‘pan’ or the ‘t’ in ‘time,’ and the beginning of the following vowel. Different languages, including Spanish and English, have distinct timing patterns. “We can measure really fine-grained differences between individuals,” said Amengual, “and we can compare to what degree the two sound systems are interacting in their speech.” Credit: Courtesy of Mark Amengual, with permission.

The mental gymnastics of speaking another language requires using a new sound system while suppressing the dominant one of your first language. How people achieve this feat—and its linguistic, social, and cognitive consequences—centers the research of Mark Amengual, associate professor of applied linguistics and director of Spanish Studies. “I’ve always been intrigued by how seamlessly bilinguals switch between languages,” said Amengual, himself multilingual, speaking English, Spanish, and Catalan.

In the UCSC Bilingualism Research Laboratory he directs, Amengual analyzes the acoustic profiles of multi-lingual speech collected under controlled experimental conditions. In one study, for example, Amengual compared two groups of Latino Spanish-English bilinguals—one speaking Spanish at home and not English until starting school and the other exposed to both languages from birth—with a third group of bilinguals who grew up English-speaking and then acquired Spanish by studying it in college. It turns out the degree of exposure to each language in the formative, early years of life has a persistent effect, influencing adult speech acoustics in a quantifiable way.

These photographs show the experimental setup, within a soundproof booth, for collecting data for the bilingual speech perception (left) and production (right) research Amengual conducts in Mexico in collaboration with colleagues from the Laboratorio de Estudios Lingüísticos at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro. Credit: Courtesy of Mark Amengual and Stanislav Mulík, with permission.

To get a fuller picture of “what bilingualism is all about,” Amengual also studies speech perception among Indigenous bilingual populations in Mexico who speak Spanish and an endangered language, Hñäñho. “Perception and production,” said Amengual, “are two sides of the same coin.”

—Elizabeth Devitt