Want to understand accented speakers better? Practice, practice, practice

Conversation is at the heart of people’s lives. We use language to communicate our hopes and dreams to our closest friends, to ask for help from colleagues at work and to describe our ailments to medical professionals. Typically this process of communication goes fairly smoothly.

But there are circumstances that can make communication even between two healthy adults more challenging – consider the native language background of the two participants. It’s commonly understood that non-native speech is harder to understand than native speech, and this challenge can result in communication failures.

As a linguist and cognitive scientist, I’m interested in the half of the conversation equation that often gets overlooked: the native listener. Given that, worldwide, there are more non-native speakers of English than native speakers, this is an especially interesting topic to consider here in the United States.

What did you say?

Communicative efficiency, or the time it takes to complete a task through conversation, is delayed when speakers do not share a language background.

There are several reasons why non-native speech is more challenging for a native listener to understand than speech from another native speaker.

Researchers know, for example, that listeners are better at understanding a familiar talker than an unfamiliar talker, regardless of language background. It makes sense that people get to know the specific properties of those they interact with frequently and over time improve at understanding them.

A busy restaurant or a noisy cocktail party can make it hard to understand. diana/Unsplash, CC BY
It’s also clear that non-native speech deviates from native speech on a variety of dimensions, ranging from how single sounds are produced to speaking rate. All of these acoustic qualities can make non-native speech more challenging for native listeners to understand. It’s similar to how other types of listening challenges can affect perception – think about the difficulties of listening to speech at a noisy cocktail party.

Conversations have two participants

Typically, in conversations between native and non-native speakers, the burden of success of the conversation is placed on the non-native speaker. But in conversation it takes two to tango.

Some studies suggest, in fact, that listeners are bringing more to the conversation you might assume. Yes, non-native speech is acoustically different than native speech, but a variety of other social factors can affect how non-native speech is understood.

For instance, expectations influence speech perception. Imagine hearing a word where part of the sound is covered up by some other noise – like “*ate” where the star represents a consonant sound covered up by the sound of a cough. You might have a challenging time figuring out what the word is. Is it gate? Date? Bait? Or something else all together?

But now, imagine you hear the same phrase in the sentence “Please check the latch on the *ate.” As a listener, you’d logically fill that in with a “g” to complete the word “gate.” However, if you hear the same acoustic signal in a sentence like “Please check the time and the *ate,” you’d be more likely to hear that sound as a “d” to fill in the word “date.”