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Accents are easier on the brain if you can identify them

Accents are easier on the brain if you can identify them


Science answers my existential questions

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A cap used in the study to measure reaction to hearing language errors from native and non-native speakers
A cap used in the study to measure reaction to hearing language errors from native and non-native speakers
Kimberly Cartier

I was born and raised in Rome, so Italian is my native language. Now I live in the US, and I’m basically bilingual. Yet, when I hear other people speak English with an accent, sometimes I have a hard time understanding what they’re saying. In movies with a character who’s a non-native English speaker — or even has an accent I’m unused to, like an Irish one — I sometimes struggle; if I don’t turn on the subtitles, I’ll miss half of what they’re saying. But when I hear a fellow Italian speak English, even with a thick accent, I have no problems at all. I understand everything.

I’ve always found this frustrating. Am I stupid, or is this normal? Now, I might have finally found a scientific answer to my question: I’m probably normal. Our brains respond differently to different accents, and we can better process foreign-accented speech if we can identify the accent we hear, according to a study coming out next month in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.

Am I stupid, or is this normal?

The genesis of the study, actually, is pretty similar to my experience. One of the study authors, Janet van Hell, is originally from the Netherlands. When she moved to the US, where she spoke English as a second language, she noticed that her interactions with people changed. "My speaker identity changed," van Hell, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Penn State, said in a statement. "I suddenly had a foreign accent, and I noticed that people were hearing me differently, that my interactions with people had changed because of my foreign accent. And I wanted to know why that is, scientifically."

So she and Sarah Grey, an assistant professor of modern languages and literature at Fordham University, decided to look at what happens in the brain of monolingual native English speakers when they listen to foreign accents. They had a group of 29 college students living in central Pennsylvania listen to sentences spoken both in plain American-English and in a Chinese-English accent.

Some sentences had grammar or vocabulary errors. For example, in a sentence like "Thomas was planning to attend the meeting but she missed the bus to school,” the pronoun “she” is obviously wrong. And in the sentence, "Kaitlyn traveled across the ocean in a cactus to attend the conference," the word “cactus” should have been “airplane.”

One of the study subjects taking the language test
One of the study subjects taking the language test
Janet van Hell

As the subjects listened to the sentences, their brain activity was monitored through an electroencephalogram — a way to observe electrical activity in the brain. The EEG showed that the brains responded differently to the different accents. (The study didn’t check to see if the 29 subjects actually recognized the mistakes in the sentences — it just looked at brain activity.) The researchers then asked the subjects whether they recognized the accents they had just heard. They found that those who correctly identified the Chinese-English accent had a more active brain response, Grey tells The Verge. Their brains basically responded to both grammar and vocabulary errors, no matter what the accent was. But those subjects who didn’t identify the Chinese-English accent did not respond to grammar errors. “When the error was present in the sentence, the brain didn’t respond to it,” Grey says. That didn’t happen with the plain American-English accent.

This study only looked at native English speakers and how they process accents, so it doesn’t totally apply to me. English is my second language, so something else might be happening in my brain when I listen to, say, an Australian. But Grey and van Hell are looking at exactly my situation next: how bilingual people process accents differently, and whether hearing their own accent helps with comprehension.

I can’t wait to see those results, and finally get a better understanding of what the heck is going on in my brain. I sometimes find myself wondering if I should have stayed in Italy, rather than complicating my life by going to another country and speaking a language that’s not my own — an existential question I think a lot of immigrants face. I love that science is beginning to address questions like this, ones that are meaningful to my experience.