Being able to speak more than one language is a wonderful thing. When you are multilingual, you can communicate with many more people than if you learn your native language and end your communication development there. When you are able to communicate with more people, you earn the remarkable opportunity to learn about other cultures, other ways of life, and all sorts of wonderful things. Multilingualism expands your world.explore1

Learning another language helps people to understand one another. We are all on this planet together, and the better we understand one another, the better we can cooperate to make the world a better place for everyone on it. Multilingualism helps people to spread urgent news from one part of the globe to another rapidly, so scientists can collaborate and share their remarkable discoveries with the rest of the world, and governments can come to agreements about difficult situations.

Furthermore, knowing a foreign language allows you to immerse yourself in someone else’s culture, to fully understand and appreciate the customs and traditions, foods, music, and even get a better understanding of how the way people from that culture think. Psycholinguists (most notably Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir) have thoroughly discussed the effects of language on thought, and have come to a general consensus that at least some of the aspects of our language shape the way we think.

processingSome people do not understand the unique benefits of knowing more than one language, and they may view foreign accents as a negative thing. While looking down upon foreign accents is certainly not the way the world should work, it is the reality. While we cannot easily change the way in which others view our accents, one thing we can do is to work on our accents to change the way our listeners process our speech.

talkWhen we hear spoken language, our brains work to translate the spoken words into ideas with meaning. Our brains can usually recognize whole words, sometimes entire phrases, and translate those into their respective meanings. When the speaker has a noticeable accent, however, that recognition process is slowed down. The listener’s brain may have to break down the words further into the separate sounds of speech before putting them back together and translating that cobbled-together series of speech sounds into words with meaning.

This process of understanding accented speech takes a little bit longer than the process of understanding speech produced without an accent. Researchers[1] have found this to be true. Furthermore, this effect of hearing and understanding accented speech varies depending on the word choice, and perhaps even the topic of conversation. More predictable words will be processed faster than words that are unpredictable. Whether a word is predictable or not depends on context; that is, the other words that are in the sentence or phrase. Researchers have found that when words contain inaccurately produced speech sounds, listeners are better able to identify these errors in words that are highly predictable (for example, in the phrase “shag garpet”) than in words that are much less predictable (“rag garpet”)[2]. Although this processing delay is only in the order of milliseconds, it can have a big effect on communication.

Luckily, there are some things that we can do as speakers to make things easier for our listeners. These tips are similar to the tips I shared in my post about communicating with people who are hard of hearing. If you want to learn tricks for getting your message across with an accent, click here.

Multilingualism[1] Munro, M. & Derwing, T. (1995). Processing time, accent, and comprehensibility in the perception of native and foreign-accented speech. Language and Speech, 38, 289–306.

[2] Cole, R. A., & Jakimik, J. (1978). Understanding speech: How words are heard. In G. Underwood (Ed.), Strategies of information processing. New York: Academic Press.