Understanding Someone With a Foreign Accent
Can heavily accented speech remain intelligible?
Posted February 17, 2020 | Reviewed by Daniel Lyons M.A.
Contrary to general belief, most bilinguals have an accent in one of their languages. In a first post, I discussed this longstanding myth and examined such aspects as the no accent age limit (it is much later than most of us believe), which languages are affected, as well as the disadvantages and the advantages of having an accent.
In a second post, I considered why people retain an accent in a second language. The maturational factor is crucial, in other words, the age the language is acquired, but so is the type and amount of input in that language afterward.
How foreign accents are perceived, that is, the impression they make on us, and how well accented speech is understood, are topics that have led to some very interesting studies. Here is just one example. Two Canadian researchers, Murray Munro at Simon Fraser University and Tracey M. Derwing at the University of Alberta, asked native speakers of English to listen to English recordings made by native speakers of Mandarin who had learned English after puberty. They were proficient in English but their pronunciation ranged from moderately to heavily accented.
The English native speakers were asked to do three tasks. In one of them, they had to give an accentedness rating, that is, rate the degree of foreign accent in each recording sample they were given. They used a nine-point scale, where one corresponded to no foreign accent and nine to a very strong foreign accent. The final distribution of these ratings was basically flat, with almost as many samples falling in the 1-3, 4-6 and 7-9 accentedness groups. Thus, there were as many samples considered to have been spoken with no foreign accent, as there were with a moderate accent, and with a very strong accent.
Would this distribution be reflected in how well the samples were understood? Would a sample judged to be heavily accented be badly understood? And likewise, would a sample judged to have have been spoken with no foreign accent be easily understood? The participants were given two tasks to get at this. In the first, a judgment task, they had to assign a comprehensibility rating to each sample, where one corresponded to extremely easy to understand, and nine to impossible to understand.
To the authors' surprise, the comprehensibility distribution was quite different from the one obtained for accentedness: 22% of the samples here were given a rating of one (extremely easy to understand) - only about 4% had received a one in the accentedness ratings — and a full 64% of the samples fell in the 1-3 comprehensibility categories. Basically, many of the samples were perceived to be comprehensible even though they had been judged to be accented. Thus, even if someone is speaking with a foreign accent, there is a fair chance that they will be understood.
The real test though is to move away from perceived comprehensibility to actual comprehension. To do this, the participants were given an intelligibility task. They were asked to transcribe exactly what they had heard. The transcriptions were then given an intelligibility score on the basis of the number of words that exactly matched what had been said. The results were quite amazing. Close to two-thirds of the samples received a score in the 91% to 100% intelligibility range. Basically, the presence of a foreign accent did not impact intelligibility to a large extent.
Thus, listening to someone with an accent does not normally affect the comprehension and hence impede communication. Of course, from time to time this can happen, and we all have a few examples in mind when we found communication difficult. The accent was so strong that it almost seemed as if the person was speaking their other language. However, if we interact with someone periodically, we often adapt to the specificities of their accented speech marked by vowel and consonant changes, word stress misplacement, inappropriate pause placement, different pitch contours, and so on.
We also adopt various perception and communication strategies. Here is one described by an English-Spanish bilingual listening to her mother, originally from Guatemala, when she was speaking English to her: "She .... struggled with differentiating 'b' and 'v'. In Spanish, they sound alike, unlike English. So whenever she was writing, and she asked me for the spelling of an unfamiliar English word that began with one of those letters, I would say, "It starts with V, like vaca or B, like bebé?"
Of course, at times, it may be difficult to have an extended conversation with a person with heavily accented speech. In sum, as I wrote in an earlier post, having an accent when you know and use two or more languages is a fact of life; it is something you get used to, as do the others you interact with.
Munro, Murray J. and Derwing, Tracey M. (2019). Phonetics and second language teaching research. In The Routledge Handbook of Phonetics, edited by William F. Katz & Peter F. Assmann, pp. 473-495. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
Munro, Murray, J. and Derwing, Tracey M. 1999. Foreign accent, comprehensibility, and intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. In Phonological Issues in Language Learning, edited by Jonathan Leather, pp. 285–310. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.