As children enter school, they start to interact with a variety of new people – some of whom may have a foreign accent. It is important for children to understand people that come from different backgrounds, but we know that processing speech can be difficult for young children (Barker & Turner, 2015). What else might children need to use in order to process a foreign accent? Well, they will need to rely on their cognitive resources, which includes short-term memory skills.
What does the current literature tell us about adults, children, and memory?
Before we discuss children, let’s first cover what is known about adults. Research with adults has shown that they have difficulty understanding people with non-native accents. When trying to decide whether someone’s sentence was true or false, adults needed additional time to respond to the task when the speaker had a foreign accent (Adank, Evans, Stuart-Smith, & Scott, 2009; Wilson & Spaulding, 2010). They also made more errors compared to when they listened to an unfamiliar native accent (Adank, Evans, Stuart-Smith, & Scott, 2009). Based on literature like this, one might expect for children to have even more difficulty since their cognitive resources are still developing.
Now that we have covered what is known about adults, let’s see if our prediction about children was right. Bent (2014) compared school-aged children’s perception of foreign accented speech to adults’ perception using a word recognition task. The participants listened to single words presented one at a time and repeated the words to the experimenter after each presentation. The results showed that both children and adults had more difficulty recognizing the foreign accented words compared to the native accented words, but overall, children performed worse than adults. In a different study, Newton and Ridgway (2016) showed that school-aged children needed a significant reduction in noise in order to correctly repeat sentences with a novel accent compared to sentences with a familiar accent. What does this mean? Our prediction regarding children was correct.
Before discussing the current study, there is one more topic to discuss: memory. Recognizing words is one thing, but a foreign accent could also affect children’s memory. When listening to foreign accented speech, children are required to combine comprehension and memory together. Utilizing resources to understand the foreign accented speech might cause the children’s developing memory skills to become overwhelmed. Children are then using additional resources that would not typically be required for unaccented speech and this decreases the number of resources available for other stages of processing. This can affect the resources that are needed to store information. There is limited research regarding the way a foreign accent affects memory in children and adults, but there is currently more research with adults. Janse and Adank (2012) found that when deciding whether someone’s sentence was true or false, adults had better comprehension of the novel accent when they had stronger short-term and working memory skills. How do you think a foreign accent might affect young children who are still developing memory skills? We predicted it would cause even more difficulty.
The current research project looked at the effect of a Slavic accent on the short-term memory of school-aged children.
Children were asked to listen to a variety of instructions presented in English with either a Slavic accent or an American English accent. An example of an instruction is, “Point to the key then point to the ice cream then point to the zebra.” The number of target words in these instructions varied between one to four words. After listening to the instructions, children were asked to point to the corresponding pictures on the computer screen in the order they heard the target words.
We predicted that the foreign accent would affect comprehension of speech, but we wanted to see if memory would be impacted as well. In addition, we wanted to know if there would be an interaction between accent and memory (i.e. longer accented instructions). The results showed that children performed better with the non-accented instructions and instructions with less target words. Children did not have even more difficulty with the longer accented instructions. Now that we have results, it is time to consider what they mean.
We know that a foreign accent appears to affect perception, but memory appears to be spared.
The results from this project suggest that if a child is listening to a foreign-accented speaker, they may initially have difficulty understanding what is being said. However, once they understand the speech, they should not have even more difficulty remembering the information. This is good news for children in school – it suggests that children will be able to learn and remember information from whoever teaches them. Therefore, as long as the speaker is clear enough to be initially understood, children should not have more difficulty learning from them or interacting with them.
Adank, P., Evans, B. G., Stuart-Smith, J., & Scott, S. K. (2009). Comprehension of familiar and unfamiliar native accents under adverse listening conditions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35(2), 520–529.
Barker, B. A., & Turner, L. M. (2015). Influences of foreign accent on preschoolers’ word recognition and story comprehension. Applied Psycholinguistics, 1-22.
Bent, T. (2014). Children’s perception of foreign-accented words. Journal of child language, 41(06), 1334-1355.
Janse, E., & Adank, P. (2012). Predicting foreign-accent adaptation in older adults. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 65(8), 1563-1585.
Newton, C., & Ridgway, S. (2016). Novel accent perception in typically-developing school-aged children. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 32(1), 111-123.
Wilson, E. O. B., & Spaulding, T. J. (2010). Effects of noise and speech intelligibility on listener comprehension and processing time of Korean-accented English. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 53(6), 1543-1554.
Tiara Booth is part of the the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity program for Speech-Language Pathology students at the University of Maryland. The program aims to broaden students’ understanding of culture and language in order to minimize disparities in service delivery to culturally and linguistically diverse populations.