It’s not you, it’s them (sometimes).


If you’re communicating in a language you picked up later in life – also known as an L2 – effective communication is more than just knowing how to put the words together. It’s about pronouncing the words clearly and fluidly, with just the right intonation to get your point across, and using the right words. That’s true even in a first language.

A topic of investigation for speech researchers is what, exactly, contributes to our hearing an accent in the speech of someone’s L2. Three factors have been identified as affecting how English spoken as a second language sounds: intelligibility, accentedness, and comprehensibility.

Intelligibility is a measure of how much of what a person says can be understood by a typical listener.

Accentedness is similar to intelligibility, but involves influence from a native language. When we speak languages we learned later in life, it’s hard to know how much of an accent we have, because the perception of accentedness comes from a listener who learned that language from birth. What can we do about this? Knowing we have an accent, we can work to make our L2 sound more natural, or native. This is where the accent in “accent modification” comes from.

Comprehensibility is a little bit different. It has to do with how easy it is for a listener to process what someone else says. It involves not just the sounds of speech, but also the meanings of the words and how they’re put together. Comprehensibility gets at our deep understanding of a language: knowing which words to use and when, in what order, and getting those words out clearly enough that the person you’re talking to can follow what you’re saying. I think we’ve all had conversations with someone speaking an L2 where it took a lot of mental effort just to understand what they were trying to say.

A study published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research looked at the three factors mentioned above in Spanish speakers with English as an L2. The speakers were each assigned to one of three groups depending on how much of an accent they had and were recorded as they produced three types of sentences:

  1. True/False: A statement that is either true or false. (Example: June is the first month of the year.)
  2. Meaningful: A sentence that is grammatically correct and makes sense. (Example: Crazy Mary digs a deep hole.)
  3. Unexpected: A sentence that, although it is grammatically correct, does not make sense because of the vocabulary used. (Example: The refrigerator ran across the field.)

Monolingual English speakers listened to the recordings and ranked them by accent. These rankings coincided pretty accurately with the accent groups the speakers were assigned to. Of the three sentence types, the True/False sentences were the easiest to understand, and were judged as being spoken with less of an accent than the other two sentence types. What’s more interesting is that while the meaningful sentences were pretty easy to understand, the listeners judged the recordings of the unexpected sentences that didn’t make sense as being spoken with more of an accent. In other words, when the speakers said sentences that did not make sense because of the vocabulary, the listeners perceived a stronger accent!

 

This research indicates that part of what gives us an accent when we’re speaking a second language comes from the person we’re talking to. We have to take into account how their brain is processing what we’re saying. We can do this by really thinking about and working to improve the way we present our ideas and introduce new topics. Often, it’s our most exciting and innovative ideas that we most want to be heard by others. Working on communication skills in your second language can help others to start thinking about the meat of your ideas without having to waste brainpower processing the words you’re using to communicate.

It takes a long time to learn another language really well, and if you have, chances are good that you’ve worked your tail off to learn the vocabulary to communicate intelligently with native speakers. Lingua East can help you with your accent and comprehensibility so that people hear your ideas, not your accent. Contact us today!