How does our culture and identity affect vocal communication?

It is widely believed that due to their biological importance, emotional expressions display invariant properties which can be recognized irrespective of an individual’s learning or cultural background (i.e., that emotional communication involves ‘universal’ principles, Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969).  However, this idea is based largely on evidence from facial expressions of emotion as opposed to vocal expressions.

Anger  Disgust  Fear  Happy  Sad  Surprise  Neutral

The goal of this research program is to determine whether vocal expressions of discrete emotion are similar in the acoustic form across languages and whether they are recognized in a similar manner in speech by listeners from different language backgrounds.  

Our experiments are focusing on the communication abilities of young healthy adults using an inventory of emotional utterances produced by speakers of major world languages (e.g., English, Hindi, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese).  We are using behavioural approaches (e.g., priming, auditory gating) and conducting acoustic analyses to answer the following questions:  Do emotion expressions vary in their acoustic form among languages? Does emotion recognition rely on the same acoustic features and have the same time course among languages? And, do listeners recognize vocal emotions when listening to a foreign language? We hypothesize that different facets of emotional communication are subject to language-independent (‘universal’) as well as language-specific factors that will be systematically illuminated by our studies.

Our cross-cultural studies will highlight the extent to which all humans share a common biological endowment for communicating emotions in the voice, while pointing to conditions where socio-cultural conventions might lead to mistaken impressions or “miscommunications” in this channel.  These questions are increasingly pertinent in today’s “global village”, particularly in Canada, where people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds are increasingly in contact with one another. 

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