May 13, 2009

Study focuses on how kids perceive accents

A U.S. scientist says she has received federal funding to study how children perceive various varieties of foreign-accented English.

Indiana University Assistant Professor Tessa Bent says the funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will help her and her colleagues determine how such accents might influence speech development in children.

In the real world children hear speech that contains an enormous amount of variability, including factors like a talker's dialect, gender, native tongue, age and emotional state, Bent said. However, language acquisition, performance in school and social interactions all require the ability to compensate for this substantial variability.

She said the $356,000 award from the National Institutes of Health will help discover how children develop their ability to accurately understand the speech of talkers who can sound very different from one another, as well as radically different from the child's own speech.

To understand a foreign-accented word, listeners need to map a potentially novel, unfamiliar production of a word to their own internal representation of the word, she said. I plan to test how children perceive foreign-accented speech compared to native-accented speech and to assess the cognitive-linguistic skills that may underlie the ability to compensate for variability.