Our brains process foreign-accented speech with greater accuracy if we can correctly identify the specific accent we are listening to, according to new neurocognitive research conducted at Pennsylvania State University.
The findings are published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.
“Increased familiarity with an accent leads to better sentence processing,” said Dr. Janet van Hell, professor of psychology and linguistics and co-director of the Center for Language Science at Penn State. “As you build up experience with foreign-accented speech, you train your acoustic system to better process the accented speech.”
Van Hell is a native of the Netherlands where the majority of people are bilingual in Dutch and English. She noticed that when she moved to central Pennsylvania that her spoken interactions with others seemed to change.
“My speaker identity changed,” said van Hell. “I suddenly had a foreign accent, and I noticed that people were hearing me differently, that my interactions with people had changed because of my foreign accent. And I wanted to know why that is, scientifically.”
The study involved 39 college-aged, monolingual, native English speakers with little exposure to foreign accents. The researchers asked participants to listen to sentences while they recorded their brain activity through an electroencephalogram. The listeners heard sentences spoken in both a neutral American-English accent and a Chinese-English accent.
The participants were then tested on overall sentence comprehension and were asked to indicate whether they heard any grammar or vocabulary errors.
The researchers tested grammar comprehension using personal pronouns, which are missing from the Chinese language, in sentences like “Thomas was planning to attend the meeting but she missed the bus to school.”
They also tested vocabulary usage by substituting words far apart in meaning into simple sentences, such as using “cactus” in place of “airplane,” in sentences like “Kaitlyn traveled across the ocean in a cactus to attend the conference.”
Overall, the participants were able to correctly identify both grammar and vocabulary errors in the American- and Chinese-accented speech at a similarly high level on a behavioral accuracy task, an average of 90 percent accuracy for both accents.
However, although average accuracy was high, the researchers found that the listeners’ brain responses differed between the two accents.
When comparing the EEG activity to the questionnaire responses, the findings reveal that listeners who correctly identified the accent as Chinese-English responded to both grammar and vocabulary errors and had the same responses for both foreign and native accents.
However, participants who did not correctly identify the Chinese-English accent only responded to vocabulary errors, but not grammar errors, when made in foreign-accented speech. Native-accented speech produced responses for both types of error.
Van Hell plans to conduct further research on how our brains process differences in regional accents and dialects in our native language, looking specifically at dialects across Appalachia, and how we process foreign-accented speech while living in a foreign-speaking country.
The world is becoming more global, said van Hell, and it is time to learn how our brains process foreign-accented speech and learn more about fundamental neurocognitive mechanisms of foreign-accented speech recognition.
“At first you might be surprised or startled by foreign-accented speech,” van Hell said, “but your neurocognitive system is able to adjust quickly with just a little practice, the same as identifying speech in a loud room. Our brains are much more flexible than we give them credit for.”
Van Hell conducted the study with her colleague Dr. Sarah Grey, former Penn State postdoctoral researcher and now assistant professor of modern languages and literature at Fordham University.
Source: Penn State