Poor grammar, not accents, lead to misunderstanding

According to a new study by a British-Canadian research team, effective communication is more closely linked to grammar and vocabulary than to pronunciation.

Non-native English speakers can now rest assured that their accents don't necessarily make it difficult for others to understand them.

According to a new study by a British-Canadian research team, effective communication is more closely linked to grammar and vocabulary than to pronunciation.

Instead of assuming that someone who sounds different is not communicating effectively, we need to listen beyond the accent, says Concordia University applied linguist Pavel Trofimovich and his University of Bristol colleague, Talia Isaacs.

The team tackled the question of what distinguishes accented speech from speech that is difficult to understand.

They asked 40 native French speakers to narrate a visual sequence in English and recorded the audio. The recordings were then played back to 60 listeners as well as three English as a Second Language teachers.

The listeners rated each narrative separately for comprehensibility and "accentedness," using numerical rating scales.

The researchers analyzed the scores in relation to the speakers' stress, pitch, grammatical errors and fluency.

Accent vs. comprehensibility

The results, published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, suggest that accent and comprehensibility are overlapping yet distinct dimensions.

"Accent is linked to particular ways in which individual sounds, syllables and words are produced, which are commonly subsumed under the pronunciation label," Trofimovich said in a statement.

"Comprehensibility, which is by far the more important concept for achieving successful oral communication, is linked to grammar and vocabulary."

The findings may give some confidence to the 40 per cent of people in Canada whose mother tongue isn't English.

Isaacs said that separating accent from comprehensibility can "help identify aspects of speech that don't actually affect listeners' understanding but that, nonetheless, may be used for negative stereotyping."