Women, (fire) and dangerous ideas: Linguistics researchers debate phonetics and bilingualism at the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas

Dr Rebekka Puderbaugh and Professor Antonella Sorace took part in this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

After a one-year hiatus Edinburgh’s world-famous Festival Fringe returned this year with numerous shows, events and exhibitions. Among the many performers, two University of Edinburgh linguists also took the stage as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas and shared their experience with us.

The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas

CoDI started in 2013 and is organised by the University of Edinburgh as part of the Beltane public engagement network. Its goal is to provide an informal platform for researchers to present their research to the broader public. The aim is to create an interactive environment, where researchers present their ideas in an engaging and provocative way without using slide shows. The audience is very much encouraged to ask questions and interact with the researcher.

Researchers who want to participate can sign up. The main motivation to participate for Rebekka and Antonella was the possibility to promote their topics to a wider audience. But the comedic aspect of the event is also a point of attraction.

Preparing for a performance at CoDI is quite a different experience to preparing for a conference talk or a lecture due to the non-academic audience and comedic aspect of the event. Prior to the event, prospective performers can take part in training ‘bootcamps’. Here they learn stage craft, how to pitch their topic in a provocative way and market their ideas.

The ‘Dangerous’ Ideas

But even with these training events, coming up with a topic and planning the performance can be difficult. Rebekka was planning to present under the provocative title “you can’t say that” on sound combinations from other languages that might be hard to pronounce for some speakers. This however turned out to be too hard to realise. Instead, she talked about the different realisations of ‘r’s ‘t’s and ‘l’s in American and Scottish accents. Rebekka says that having Susan Morrison as a comedic compere was a particular asset this year. Susan helped her demonstrate the Scottish pronunciation of “Spice Girls” which sounds like “Space Ghettos” in American English.

As a CoDI ‘veteran’, Antonella found it rather easy to prepare for her performance. Highly topical, she discussed how both Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affects bilingualism and language learning. She referred to studies showing that since Brexit less people in Britain took up foreign language courses and that with moving teaching online during the pandemic, more focus was put on sciences rather than languages. She argued that this is a huge loss for the country, given what research has shown about the potential linguistic, cognitive and social benefits of bilingualism.

‘Dangerous’ Discussions

As CoDI is all about public engagement, the most important part of the events is the discussion after the presentation. Questions from the audience often referred to their lived experience with language. This sometimes also included what linguists call ‘prescriptivist’ attitudes or general misconceptions. Following Rebekka’s performance, most people asked about specific features in dialects sometimes paired with negative attitudes, e.g. towards glottal stops (saying bo’el instead of bottle). Antonella got many questions asking for advice such as how to best raise a child bilingually in the current climate. She also had to battle some new misconceptions e.g. that bilingualism can keep you from getting Alzheimer’s disease. Engaging in these discussions could thus help with becoming aware of and overcoming negative language attitudes and misconceptions.

Some more challenging questions were asked as well though. Rebekka remembers one question bluntly asking what phonetics was good for. She explained that she teaches it at university and that there are many practical fields of application (e.g. speech technology). In hindsight, however, she tells me, she would have rather said “I don’t know, nothing, I guess”, which is what Heinrich Hertz said, when asked a similar question when reporting on his discovery of radio waves. This little anecdote really resonates with research in general. Even if we do not see the usefulness of our research now, there might come a time when we will.

About Nadine

Linguistics and English Language (LEL) PhD student Nadine Dietrich is the Student Public Engagement Ambassador for LEL at the University of Edinburgh. Keep an eye on the Linguistics & English Language at Edinburgh Twitter account @EdinUniLEL for more updates from Nadine.

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