An accent is in the ‘ear’ of the beholder

This post is also available in Dutch.

It can be frustrating to be misunderstood due to your foreign accent, or when you’re struggling to understand somebody else’s. However, the speaker is not all to blame.

Understanding what someone says is a two-way street. Image by Pixabay

Research shows that understanding what someone says is a two-way street, where not only the speaker but also the listener play a role. If you’ve ever tried to speak a foreign (or non-native) language, you might have noticed this, feeling like a pro with some people, and a babbling idiot with others.

What is an accent anyway?
How non-native speakers of a language say things (i.e., their pronunciation) may vary from how native speakers would say them. This happens because the sounds of the language spoken by the native and non-native speakers, don’t usually align. For instance, native English speakers who have tried to say the word “rent” in Dutch (“huur”) to only end up saying “whore” in Dutch (“hoer”), know this all too well.

The ways that we say things differently are referred to as “accents.” Not only non-native speakers have accents, but native speakers also vary in how they pronounce things. Just think of how a speaker from Texas might say the word “can’t” compared to a speaker from London. Understanding something a speaker with a different accent might say can be difficult because it might not match what the listener expects to hear. However, more experienced listeners can overcome this.

Our ears learn from experience
Experience or familiarity with an accent can ease understanding. This was shown by a study  looking at how native speakers of British English understand the American English “flapped t” (i.e., whereby “total” is pronounced “todal” and “water” is pronounced “wadder”). It didn’t come as a surprise when researchers found that British English speakers living in the U.S. had an easier time understanding the American accent than British English speakers who had not. Thus, how difficult or easy a listener understands an accent, also says a lot about their experience with that accent.

Living in another country or region isn’t necessary to be able to understand an accent. Listeners can adapt to different accents even after very little exposure to it. You might have experienced this yourself with an accent you first had trouble understanding, but then got the hang of. One study [2] compared how well native English speakers understood English spoken with a native versus a Spanish accent. Although the group listening to accented speech was slower at first, this difference disappeared after less than a minute of listening to the accent, revealing just how fast we can adapt.

The bottom-line
Trying to communicate across accents can be frustrating, whether you’re the speaker or the listener. But remember to be patient: as with all things, practice makes perfect.

Written by Monica. Edited by Marpessa.



1 thought on “An accent is in the ‘ear’ of the beholder

  1. I have MS.

    People have heard over 12 accents from me.

    I was diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome in the ear of the beholder.

    I was told I was the only one.

    I have been denied employment.

    Was almost arrested as police said I was not born in the USA.

    Every day I an asked: are you Australian, French,German. Irish, English, Estonian, Greek, Russian and others.

    I once thought a college class, students heard 8 accents,

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