Visual cues aid in perceiving accented speech

Priyanshi Patel ’22

Figure 1: Providing visual cues when being exposed to various languages can help in understanding accented speech. 

Previous research has shown that lip reading helps understand difficult speech. However, little research has been conducted on the role of visual information in perceiving accented speech, a type of difficult speech. Communication between native and nonnative English speakers is very common, especially on university campuses. There often exists a language barrier between native students and international students or instructors or teaching assistants (TAs), and this makes it difficult to comprehend each other. A study conducted by Yi Zheng and Arthur Samuel of Stony Brook University utilizes a specific example of communication between Chinese instructors and American students to examine the potential role of visual cues in recognizing accented words. 

The study manipulates the quality of visual speech cues by altering the apparent distance between the speaker and the listener, making lips harder to read as the distance increases. Undergraduate students with varying experience with Chinese TAs/instructors participated in the study. Students listened to two native Mandarin Chinese instructors, a female and male with different accent intensities, say 60 English words that either related to the STEM field or were commonly used and 60 “nonwords,” or words that had a consonant change in a syllable (ie.“advertise” to “adverbise”). Their task was to determine whether the utterance was a word or nonword. The students were tested twice: once after the study and again after two months. 

This study examined whether visual enhancement was modulated by familiarity of the words by asking words and nonwords. The results confirmed that having access to visual lip movement facilitates accented speech recognition. In a classroom setting, this would be analogous to sitting at the front of the room if your professor or TA has an accent that is difficult to understand, especially in courses with unfamiliar vocabulary (analogous to nonwords). This study also shows language comprehension improvement when students are exposed to the same speaker. The effects of the study can be extended to produce larger effects by manipulating visual cues (apparent distance), and comparing various accents other than from Chinese speakers. Overall, this study is highly applicable to American undergraduates with international instructors: they can better comprehend accented words by reducing distance between themselves and the speaker. 

Works Cited:

  1. Y. Zheng & A. Samuel, How much do visual cues help listeners in perceived accented speech? Applied Psycholinguistics 40, 93-109 (2019). doi: 10.1017/S0142716418000462 
  2. Image Retrieved from:

https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/welcome-phrase-in-different-languages

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