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Sydney Speaks gears up

Catherine Travis, Evolution

Date: 27 January 2017

It’s going to be a big year for CoEDL’s Sydney Speaks, an exciting project which is examining how shifting demographics change the way Australians speak.

Working on this year’s new data-collecting phase are Postdocs James Grama and Simón González Ochoa, both with backgrounds in analysing pronunciation in varieties of English. They’ve got offices across the hallway from each other at CoEDL’s ANU node and it’s clear they’ve got considerable energy and a shared enthusiasm for the months ahead. 

James has just arrived from Santa Monica College, where he took up a position after completing his PhD at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa looking at English and English-based creoles. Simón is also new to the team, having arrived at the end of 2016 from a position at Griffith University, working on a project exploring West Australian English.

Project lead and CoEDL Chief Investigator Catherine Travis has already overseen the early stages of the project, working with colleagues and students from Western Sydney University to gear up for a recruitment drive for Sydney residents. 

She observes that the entire team is hugely motivated by the diversity of Sydney’s population and the likelihood of some interesting results. “One of the biggest changes in our society in recent years has been a shift in our ethnic makeup from a dominance of European languages, such as Italian and Greek, to Asian languages,” she says. “In the 2011 census Chinese took over from Italian as the most widely spoken language after English and that trend is likely to continue.”

The project will build on recordings done in the 70s and 80s with Anglo, Italian and Greek Australians. The current and the earlier recordings are of natural and spontaneous conversation, allowing the fine details of change to be tracked in real time and in actual language use.

Both James and Simón are particularly interested in how the ethnic makeup of friendship and social groups influence speech variation. For instance, does having a tight-knit group of friends from your same ethnic community mean that you speak English differently from someone of similar background who has friends of a distinct ethnic group or a more varied ethnic group? The project will also look at whether friendship and social groups correlate with other factors that can affect language use, such as age, gender, region and socio-economic status.

“What drew me to this project is that we’re trying to do this within multicultural areas; really diverse areas,” says James. He is pleased to be working on something that deals with some major social changes going on in today’s world.

Simón agrees. He is looking forward to advancing some of the computational tools that he has developed in the past, with the goal devising more efficient and practical ways to carry out analysis and to visualize phonetic variation. 

It’s going to be a hard year but exciting year for the team, one that will no doubt enlighten us to what Australia’s changing diversity has meant for Australian English.

Above photo:James Grama and Simón González Ochoa.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University