Monday, 27 May 2013

‘What did you see? I didn’t quite hair you...’

                               even toddlers can understand a foreign accent 

We all know how difficult it can be to understand somebody who is speaking in a different accent to our own.  This is hard enough as an adult at times, but imagine what it must be like for a child who is just in the process of learning language and pronunciation.  Rachel Schmale, Alejandrina Cristia and Amanda Seidl set out to investigate whether unfamiliar accents completely impede young children’s word recognition.  They were working on the premise that being exposed to an unfamiliar accent, even for as short a time as a minute, makes it easier to understand.  The idea behind this is that the listener picks up on patterns in the accent and then ‘maps’ them onto what they hear.  One previous test showed toddlers a picture of a dog whilst they heard ⁄dæg/ (dag) rather than the expected pronunciation and, similarly, a picture of a ball whilst they heard ⁄bæl ⁄ (bal). The toddlers were then found to ‘generalise’ this sound change when it came to other objects; so, for example, they looked at a sock when hearing /sæk/ (sak) but, interestingly, not when hearing /sɪk/ (sik) – showing that they had learnt that specific pattern. 

However, Schmale, Cristis and Seidl were aware that, in real life, children are not going to encounter a speaker with a different accent which only has one specific feature that is unfamiliar; they are much more likely to hear a foreign accent with many different features from their own.  The researchers wanted to face toddlers with exposure to a natural accent in the context of fluent speech and to do this they tested monolingual 2 year olds’ ability to recognise a newly learned word when it was spoken in a foreign accent.  Firstly some of the children listened to a passage of text, either in their own American English accent or in a Spanish accent.  After that they were tested with names of objects in the foreign Spanish accent to see if they could identify them.  The researchers tested this by tracking which objects the children’s eyes looked towards when they heard it being referred to*. It was found that the children who had been briefly exposed to the foreign accent beforehand were much more successful in this word learning task whereas the children who had not been exposed to the foreign accent were unable to do it. This suggests that even a few minutes of exposure to a different accent is sufficient to ‘tune’ our ears and help us understand it.

The researchers propose that we adopt two strategies when faced with an unfamiliar accent.  Firstly, we will shift our sound boundaries to accommodate to another’s accent – just as the children did in the example of dog and dag above. We will try to take a pattern and impose it onto other words to help us to understand them.  However, unfortunately, language is more complicated than this!  So, secondly, they propose that when listeners are faced with an accent that seems to differ dramatically from their own, the linguistic brain will relax its rules about pronunciation and accept a certain degree of deviation from its norms.   They admit that this could lead to misunderstandings as listeners will not only accept dag for ‘dog’ but may also start to accept things like beg for ‘peg’ and sit for ‘seat’, leading to lots of confusion!  They also propose the idea that a speaker’s ability to adapt to a new unfamiliar accent may literally improve with age – as we get older our vocabulary expands and, therefore, we have more resources to draw on when faced with a new accent.  What is certain is that this is a fascinating area that needs further investigation.

* This is easier to understand if you view the Youtube video at
Schmale, Rachel, Cristia, Alejandrina and Seidl, Amanda (2012) Toddlers recognize words in an unfamiliar accent after brief exposure. Developmental Science 15 (6): 732-738.

doi. 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2012.01175.x

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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