Accents, Alcohol and Identity: The Legacy of an Israeli Psycholinguist

Alexander Guiora had his students recite texts in a foreign language to hear their pronunciation, and then had them read them again – after drinking alcohol. The results were surprising.

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Oktoberfest.Credit: Reuters

Why do people studying a foreign language often have trouble pronouncing it and getting rid of their mother-tongue accents? That question occupied Prof. Alexander Z. Guiora, who was the first chief psychologist of the Israel Defense Forces and passed away on October 28, 2015, at the age of 90, throughout his academic career.

The veteran psycholinguist's groundbreaking research on this topic was conducted at the University of Michigan, where he began teaching in 1964.

“Everybody knows that getting rid of one’s accent is one of the most difficult things to do when studying a foreign language, and after a certain age it is practically impossible," Prof. Avi Sagi-Schwartz, a student of Guiora, told Haaretz last week. “Thus, Israelis tend to speak English with an Israeli accent, and the Yekkes [German-born Jews] who emigrated to Palestine still speak Hebrew with a German accent. Guiora searched for psychological reasons that would explain this phenomenon."

In his research, Guiora discovered that the difficulty of getting rid of an accent is related to the difficulty in relinquishing one’s identity, in which our mother tongue plays a major role.

“When you speak like everyone else," explains Sagi-Schwartz, "you are like everyone else. When you speak differently, people know you are from elsewhere. He believed that we do not want to give up our accent because that would mean giving up our identity."

Alexander GuioraCredit: Courtesy

One of his most important experiments involved giving his American students words to read out loud in Thai, recording them as they spoke, and then examining their pronunciation carefully in order to determine to what extent they had recited the words in an authentic Thai accent. In the second part of the experiment, the students repeated the same task – but this time after having drunk alcohol.

“To his surprise, he discovered that the alcohol helped them in improving their accent. It broke their identity barrier and opened them up to a more proper use of the language,” says Sagi-Schwartz.

Ahead of his time

Guiora, nicknamed “Shonny,” was born in Nyiregyhaza, Hungary in 1925. In 1939, his Zionist father wanted to immigrate to Palestine but his grandfather objected, a decision that led to the deportation and death of the entire family in Auschwitz – except for Shonny and his brother Zvi. They were saved thanks to their father’s decision to send them to study at the rabbinical seminary in Budapest.

Guiora was living in that city on March 19, 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary. Three months later he was sent to a labor camp in the town of Bor,Yugoslavia, where he stayed until he was liberated by Tito’s Partisans while participating in the death march back to Hungary.

Guiora’s arduous and somewhat miraculous journey finally ended in Palestine where, in 1945, he joined the Jewish Brigade. He participated in advanced military training in Egypt under the command of Haim Laskov, after which he went to fight in Italy and Holland and to help their local Jewish communities. Once the war was over, he returned to Budapest in search of his family and found his brother, who had spent the war years in a monastery.

Guiora remained in Budapest where he began his studies before going on to the Sorbonne in Paris, where he eventually wrote his doctoral dissertation in clinical psychology.

In 1951 he returned to Israel and was appointed as the first chief psychologist of the IDF, as part of the Medical Corps. After his discharge, he worked as a clinical psychologist and directed the mental health clinic in Ramat Chen. He went on to teach at the University of Michigan, but in 1985 returned to Israel, where he became professor of psychology at the University of Haifa. In the mid-1990s, after the founding of Emek Yezreel College, he was appointed its president. His brother Zvi, who died in 2012, also chose to pursue an academic career in psychology, and was a professor at Tel Aviv University.

Alexander Guiora was ahead of his time, and was among the first in his field to recognize, some 20 years ago, the important relationship between psychology and cognition, although he did not manage to research this phenomenon himself.

He is survived by his wife Susie, who was secretary to Prof. Efraim Katzir, then the former president of Israel, in the 1980s; his son Amos, a professor of law at the University of Utah; and three grandchildren.

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