Arts & Sciences

Understanding accented speech: AKA, understanding speech

Kristin Van Engen studies the dynamic back-and-forth between communicators, including the impact that noise and accent have on intelligibility and comprehension.

Communication among people with different accents is particularly challenging because of the way that our brains expect to hear sounds. People don’t always hear the comfortable sounds they have learned to expect, leading some people to blame the other speaker’s ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ accent. According to Kristin Van Engen, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, this is an understandable but unfortunate attitude that could be counterproductive to successful communication.

Even between people with similar accents, speech comprehension is an incredibly complex task. The acoustic signals people interpret change in a number of respects that are unrelated to meaning. “Your voice is different from the next person’s voice. The way you produce a particular sound is different from that person. How your voice sounds depends on the environment, too,” Van Engen explained, “so, we’re dealing with a complex and variable signal all the time, even in optimal situations.” People often must interpret never-before-heard acoustic signals from not just strangers, but also friends; yet, remarkably, humans are excellent listeners, deciphering novel speech every day.

Van Engen’s research focuses on understanding this dynamic back-and-forth between communicators. She is particularly interested in the impact noise and accent have on intelligibility (making out words) and comprehension (understanding meaning). In her studies, she asks participants to repeat back sentences they hear word for word. While participants listen to the sentences, their eyes are tracked to measure the diameter of their pupils — a tried-and-true measure of how hard people are listening to the speech, with greater dilation indicating more challenge. Allowing more light into the retina means greater visual input, so people unconsciously dilate their pupils when concentrating on something.

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