A Conversation with Dr. Molly Babel on speech, attractiveness, and mother languages

February 13, 2024

Valentine's Day is a stone throw away! Ever wonder how attractiveness interacts with the study of Language Sciences? We spoke with Dr. Molly Babel about her research on speech and attractiveness, as well as mother languages (the International Mother Language Day is next up!). Read on for how you can approach these festivals with renewed perspectives :)

1.     What does your work/research focus on? 

My students and I focus on spoken languages to approach two major questions. First, why do we sound the way we do? Really, this question asks, what in our voices and speech patterns is socially acquired, what is a dynamic and malleable part of our identity, and what is more-or-less determined by our anatomy and physiology? We broach this topic by diving deep into the acoustic patterns and structures in our voices, identifying what indexes you as an individual and what is part of signaling linguistic meaning. The second major question builds on the first, but pivots to perception and comprehension: given we all sound different, how do we understand each other? That is, what are mechanisms and processes we leverage to map these infinitely variable acoustics to meaning? When and how do we track variability in the realization of linguistic categories (e.g., do we care that my “a” in my pronunciation of “cat” is different from yours?)? When and how do we track the non-linguistic aspects of the voice as we process the linguistic message?  

A theme that my students and I carry through these questions is variability and diversity. We want our understanding of speech and language to be informed by the diversity in our speech communities.   

2.     How does your work intersect with Language Sciences? 

My research poses fun and challenging questions that require interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods, theories, and thinking. The Language Sciences is a hub that integrates diverse perspectives and methods, bringing together a community of researchers who share a common interest in language. The beauty of studying language is how it naturally intersects across the humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, engineering, computer science, and medicine. I could go on and on! Language is a natural thread in any university. Thank you to the Language Sciences for providing fora for interaction and cross-pollination! 

3.     Can you tell us about your findings on the relationship between speech and attractiveness? As we are approaching Valentine’s Day, what do you want to say to students/ people looking for love? 

  • Several years ago, my colleague Dr. Grant McGuire at the University of California Santa Cruz and I ran a reading group with UCSC undergrads, surveying the literature on vocal attractiveness. We raised our eyebrows a bit at the scholarship, which largely examined the voice and perceived attractiveness from an evolutionary psychology angle, suggesting that voices that present stereotypical acoustic signatures of sexual dimorphism (e.g., larger-sounding men and smaller-sounding women) are more attractive. Given what we know about voices, the methods and interpretation of this scholarship was lacking. So, Dr. McGuire, Joseph King (an undergraduate at UCSC at the time), and I pushed this research area just a tad by using improved materials and more sophisticated acoustic and statistical methods. Ultimately, we found that, yes, acoustic characteristics that signal some aspects of sexual dimorphism were important for judgments of vocal attractiveness, but listeners also used acoustic dimensions that signaled health and conformity to community patterns. 
  • But! An important caveat here. Simply because we may be inclined to judge familiar- or typical-sounding voices as more vocally attractive does not *at all* mean we should be rationalizing the tendency to be drawn to the familiar or advocate for conformity. Alternatively, we can take this as an invitation to expose ourselves to more diverse individuals and communities so that we can all broaden our experiences. 

4.     This month, we also celebrate Family Day and International Mother Language Day. Perhaps you can tell us about your studies on heritage languages? 

  • I love the intersection of these two holidays! Our first languages, known by some as a mother language or mother tongue, are a foundation from which we forever build. The language or languages we use at home provide invaluable linguistic and social input, shaping us into our future selves. 
  • While some use the term heritage language to refer to a language that is spoken at home when a more socially dominant language (e.g., like English in BC) is used in the broader community, I avoid the term for its vagueness and its implicit labeling of heritage speakers as different from...what? Monolingual speakers of the same language? It always reads like a devaluing of a “heritage speaker’s” linguistic knowledge. We know that a bilingual is not two monolinguals in one – that is, we know that when an individual knows multiple languages, the organization and use of each individual language is different compared to a monolingual speaker whose linguistic knowledge is based on just one of those languages. This is not to say that there cannot be or are not interesting differences between speakers with different language acquisition and language environment backgrounds. There certainly is! Delineating those differences and similarities informs our understanding of language and the organization of linguistic knowledge. My point is that quantifying relative language dominance or language usage is a more valid and accurate way to capture such language differences compared to broad-strokes labels like “heritage” speaker or language.
  • While English might be the dominant language in the Lower Mainland at the societal level, I am so lucky be living, working, and raising a family amidst a rich language fabric. According to the most recent census, just over half of Metro Vancouverites are mother tongue speakers of English. Over 50 unique mother tongue languages are spoken by the remaining members of our community! From a recent survey of over 1000 UBC students, the most typical language profile of a UBC student was having competence in three languages: a home language, English, and French, which for most students was a language introduced through school. This multilingualism is amazing! We need to cultivate a sustaining culture of multilingualism in our communities and provide infrastructure to support it. 
  • hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim are Indigenous languages of the area, and while we do not hear enough of these languages around town, there is some (not enough!) institutional support for the child and adult learners of these languages. Cantonese, English, and Punjabi share approximate time depth in the Lower Mainland, and these are all languages we can hear and see supported around town. Mandarin is also a language we can hear regularly spoken in the Lower Mainland. There are, of course, many more – remember over 50 languages are spoken as mother tongue languages in Metro Vancouver! In my lab our focus on any particular language or community of speakers is driven by my students’ experiences and interests.

5.     What inspires you to pursue your line of work? 

You can’t argue the fact that language is endlessly fascinating, but students are what keep me trucking along. The most important aspect of my job at UBC is to provide opportunity. 

First Nations land acknowledegement

We acknowledge that UBC’s campuses are situated within the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, and in the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation and their peoples.

UBC Crest The official logo of the University of British Columbia. Urgent Message An exclamation mark in a speech bubble. Caret An arrowhead indicating direction. Arrow An arrow indicating direction. Arrow in Circle An arrow indicating direction. Arrow in Circle An arrow indicating direction. Chats Two speech clouds. Facebook The logo for the Facebook social media service. Information The letter 'i' in a circle. Instagram The logo for the Instagram social media service. External Link An arrow entering a square. Linkedin The logo for the LinkedIn social media service. Location Pin A map location pin. Mail An envelope. Menu Three horizontal lines indicating a menu. Minus A minus sign. Telephone An antique telephone. Plus A plus symbol indicating more or the ability to add. Search A magnifying glass. Twitter The logo for the Twitter social media service. Youtube The logo for the YouTube video sharing service.