Did you know you 'baby talk' to foreigners?

Monja Knoll, 32, is researching speech production, at the University of Portsmouth

Until recently, people thought that the way we speak to infants was just an amusing mannerism. But then researchers realised that when we engage in "baby talk" we expand our vowels to make them clearer (known as hyperarticulation). Infants learn vowels before they learn what words mean. Two years ago, during my BSc degree, I found that this also happens when we speak to foreigners.

I'm now looking at speech directed to foreigners and to the hearing-impaired, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. My research addresses how speech is subconsciously modified depending on the audience, how pervasive these modifications are, and whether they actually benefit the listener.

I already have one study running, which is to do with how we modify our speech, linguistically or emotionally. People talk with a range of frequencies, and if you cut off the higher frequencies then speech sounds unintelligible, like a mumble. In this study I've been taking 20 second excerpts and cutting off the high frequencies and playing it to people who then rate it emotionally. They say how positive, negative, or encouraging they think the person sounds.

My other aim is to find new methods for investigating speech. At the moment researchers, typically, use imaginary scenarios in which they tell speakers simply to imagine, for example, that they are speaking to a hearing impaired person. I'm trying to capture natural speech by studying real conversations. Identifying the ways people modify their speech may help those in close contact with the hearing impaired or with foreigners.

The research is particularly fascinating to me because, nine years ago, I came to the UK from Germany and I didn't speak English. So I started to learn: I read Pride and Prejudice, I watched Neighbours on TV, and I worked in McDonald's. A lot of people tried to make me understand what they were saying. They spoke to me very slowly, or they shouted. But then my English was so poor that they had to do something!

Prejudice is an issue because we may modify our speech and make it very pronounced when speaking to a blind person or to someone in a wheelchair, even when we don't need to. It's all to do with our perception of the person we are speaking to.

In the case of foreigners, it also depends on how foreign we think a person looks. What I enjoy is that my research might be put to good use, but it's also that I'm finally doing something I really enjoy, not just something that pays the bills.