Hard to Understand, Harder to Remember
Struggling to understand someone else talking can be a taxing mental
activity. A wide range of studies have already documented that
individuals with hearing loss or who are listening to degraded speech –
for example, over a bad phone line or in a loud room – have greater
difficulty remembering and processing the spoken information than
individuals who heard more clearly.
Now researchers at Washington
University in St. Louis are investigating the relatively unexplored
question of whether listening to accented speech similarly affects the
brain’s ability to process and store information. Their preliminary
results suggest that foreign-accented speech, even when intelligible,
may be slightly more difficult to recall than native speech.
researchers presented their findings at the 169th meeting of the
Acoustical Society of America, held May 18-22, 2015 in Pittsburgh,
Listening to accented speech is different than
other more widely studied forms of “effortful listening” – think loud
cocktail parties – because the accented speech itself deviates from
listener expectations in (often) systematic ways, said Kristin Van
Engen, a post-doctoral research associate in the linguistics program at
Washington University in St. Louis.
How the brain processes
information delivered in an accent has relevance to real-world settings
like schools and hospitals. “If you’re working hard to understand a
professor or doctor with a foreign accent, are you going to have more
difficulty encoding the information you’re learning in memory?” Van
Engen asked. The answer is not really known, and the issue has received
relatively little attention in either the scientific literature on
foreign accent processing or the literature on effortful listening, she
To begin to answer her question, Van Engen and her
colleagues tested the ability of young-adult native English speakers to
store spoken words in their short-term memory. The test subjects
listened to lists of English words, voiced either with a standard
American accent or with a pronounced, but still intelligible Korean
accent. After a short time the lists would randomly stop and the
listeners were asked to recall the last three words they had heard.
All the volunteer listeners selected for the study were unfamiliar with a Korean accent.
listeners’ rate of recall for the most recently heard words was
similarly high with both accents, but Van Engen and her team found that
volunteers remembered the third word back only about 70 percent of the
time when listening to a Korean accent, compared to about 80 percent
when listening to a standard American accent.
All of the words
spoken with the accent had been previously tested to ensure that they
were understandable before they were used in the experiment, Van Engen
said. The difference in recall rates might be due to the brain using
some of its executive processing regions, which are generally used to
focus attention and integrate and store information, to understand words
spoken in an unfamiliar accent, Van Engen said.
The results are
preliminary, and Van Engen and her team are working to gather data on
larger sets of listeners, as well as to test other brain functions that
require processing spoken information, such as listening to a short
lecture and later recalling and using the concepts discussed. She said
work might also be done to explore whether becoming familiar with a
foreign accent would lessen the observed difference in memory functions.
Engen hopes the results might help shape strategies for both listeners
and foreign accented speakers to better communicate and ensure that the
information they discussed is remembered. For example, it might help
listeners to use standard strategies such as looking at the person
speaking and asking for repetition. Accented speakers might be able to
improve communication by talking more slowing or working to match their
intonation, rhythm and stress patterns more closely to that of native
speakers, Van Engen said.