ASA Lay Language Papers
161st Acoustical Society of America Meeting

Why is understanding foreign accents so hard?

Alison M. Trude-
Sarah Brown-Schmidt-

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
603 E. Daniel St.
Champaign, IL 61820

Popular version of paper 5aSC22
Presented Friday morning, May 27, 2011
161st ASA Meeting, Seattle, WA

Many people have at one time or another felt frustrated trying to understand a speaker with a foreign accent. The amount of difficulty that we can experience when listening to accented speech is especially surprising given how easily we deal with other types of variation across different speakers, including differences in pitch and rate of speech. However, given the global nature of our society, and the frequency with which we interact with individuals from different countries, it is important to know why foreign accented speech presents such a challenge to listeners.

In a series of studies, graduate student Alison Trude and Professor Sarah Brown-Schmidt of the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois examined listeners’ ability to understand the speech of two different speakers: a native English speaker and a native Quebec French speaker, both speaking English. The French speaker spoke with a natural accent in which words ending in an “ees” sound (e.g., “bees”) were pronounced normally, but words with an “ee” sound followed by any other consonant were pronounced with a short “i" sound (e.g., “beet” would be pronounced “bit”).

Bees | Beet

Participants performed a listening task in which they heard a word spoken by one of the two speakers, and clicked on an associated picture on a computer display. On critical trials, they saw a picture of the unaccented word (e.g., “bees”) and a picture of the accented word that started with the same sound (e.g., “beet”). The researchers measured participants’ eye gaze to these pictures as a highly sensitive measure of how quickly participants understood the words. The participants then heard either the English or French speaker say phrases such as “Select bees.” Previous research has shown that participants spend more time looking at pictures whose names sound more alike, so it was predicted that participants would look at the picture of the beet more when hearing the English speaker say “bees,” and would look at the picture of the beet less often when hearing the French speaker say “bees,” because in the French accent, “bees” and “beet” sound less similar.

Trude and Brown-Schmidt discovered that, contrary to their predictions, listeners actually looked at the wrong picture more often when listening to the French speaker. Interestingly, while listeners were unable to completely adapt to the French accent, listeners did show improvement in certain contexts. Across a series of experiments, Trude and Brown-Schmidt found that listeners adapted to the French accent best when each of the accented words that they heard were pronounced with the same ending (e.g., “beet,” “seat,” “feet”), and when the accented words didn’t already sound like another English word. For example, a word like “beet,” which was pronounced in the French accent like a real word in English, “bit,” was harder to understand than a word like “beep,” which, in the French accent, sounds like “bip,” which is not a real word in English.

These results tell us two important things about understanding accented speech: First, when talking with someone who has a foreign accent, it may be easier to adjust to the accent if the speaker says many similar-sounding words at first. Second, listeners are likely to have the most difficulty understanding foreign-accented words when the accent creates confusion between two real words in English, such as “beet” and “bit.”

These findings show that we as listeners have very particular expectations about how speech should sound. Some theories say that when listening to a foreign speaker, we relax the rules of pronunciation and are more accepting of things that don’t sound quite right because we understand that he or she cannot speak the language perfectly. However, these results suggest the opposite: native speakers of a language are listening for well-formed words, regardless of who’s talking.