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Word interpretation can be influenced by speaker's accent

4 October 2017

Woman listening with headphones

New research from UCL has found that when British people hear a word with two meanings spoken in an American accent, they’re more likely to interpret the word by its American meaning than if the speaker’s accent sounds British.

Dr Jennifer Rodd (UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, @jennirodd) and Dr Zhenguang Cai (now at University of East Anglia) led a study in which participants listened to recordings of people saying ambiguous words, and had to say what they thought it meant. An example of an ambiguous word used is “bonnet”: for Americans “bonnet” would typically mean a type of hat, but for British people it would typically mean a car hood.

While British listeners were generally more likely to choose the British definition of the word, they were less likely to if the speaker sounded American, as their answer was influenced by the speaker’s accent.

These findings held true even when individual words were modified to a neutral hybrid accent, but were presented in a series with a consistently British or American accent. This suggested that listeners were influenced not just by the sound of the word itself, but also by the perceived identity of the speaker.

The participants were given no information about the speaker, but merely picked up on the accent in the audio recordings. In follow-up experiments, the researchers found that participants were influenced by the speaker’s accent even when they had to respond so quickly that they couldn’t deliberately consider the speaker’s identity.

Dr Rodd says: “This study highlights how skilled listeners are at picking up really subtle differences in how different groups of speakers use language. This kind of detailed knowledge is important for listeners to be able to understand words quickly and accurately.”

She and her co-authors say their studies are adding to our knowledge of how we interpret the complexities of language, which could be used to address language comprehension challenges in children.

The researchers plan to study how quickly American students in the UK develop skills at understanding a different dialect. Their study also presents questions about how well we keep track of the idiosyncrasies of how our friends and family use their words.

The study was funded by the ESRC, the MRC and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and also involved researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and York.

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