Di Betta, A. M., Weber, A., & McQueen, J. M. (2009). Trick or treat? Adaptation to Italian-accented English speech by native English, Italian, and Dutch listeners. Poster presented at 15th Annual Conference on Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing (AMLaP 2009), Barcelona.
English is spoken worldwide by both native (L1) and nonnative (L2) speakers. It is therefore imperative to establish how easily L1 and L2 speakers understand each other. We know that L1 listeners adapt to foreign-accented speech very rapidly (Clarke & Garrett, 2004), and L2 listeners find L2 speakers (from matched and mismatched L1 backgrounds) as intelligible as native speakers (Bent & Bradlow, 2003). But foreign-accented speech can deviate widely from L1 pronunciation norms, for example when adult L2 learners experience difficulties in producing L2 phonemes that are not part of their native repertoire (Strange, 1995). For instance, Italian L2 learners of English often lengthen the lax English vowel /I/, making it sound more like the tense vowel /i/ (Flege et al., 1999). This blurs the distinction between words such as bin and bean. Unless listeners are able to adapt to this kind of pronunciation variance, it would hinder word recognition by both L1 and L2 listeners (e.g., /bin/ could mean either bin or bean). In this study we investigate whether Italian-accented English interferes with on-line word recognition for native English listeners and for nonnative English listeners, both those where the L1 matches the speaker accent (i.e., Italian listeners) and those with an L1 mismatch (i.e., Dutch listeners). Second, we test whether there is perceptual adaptation to the Italian-accented speech during the experiment in each of the three listener groups.
Participants in all groups took part in the same cross-modal priming experiment. They heard spoken primes and made lexical decisions to printed targets, presented at the acoustic offset of the prime. The primes, spoken by a native Italian, consisted of 80 English words, half with /I/ in their standard pronunciation but mispronounced with an /i/ (e.g., trick spoken as treek), and half with /i/ in their standard pronunciation and pronounced correctly (e.g., treat). These words also appeared as targets, following either a related prime (which was either identical, e.g., treat-treat, or mispronounced, e.g., treek-trick) or an unrelated prime.
All three listener groups showed identity priming (i.e., faster decisions to treat after hearing treat than after an unrelated prime), both overall and in each of the two halves of the experiment. In addition, the Italian listeners showed mispronunciation priming (i.e., faster decisions to trick after hearing treek than after an unrelated prime) in both halves of the experiment, while the English and Dutch listeners showed mispronunciation priming only in the second half of the experiment.
These results suggest that Italian listeners, prior to the experiment, have learned to deal with Italian-accented English, and that English and Dutch listeners, during the experiment, can rapidly adapt to Italian-accented English. For listeners already familiar with a particular accent (e.g., through their own pronunciation), it appears that they have already learned how to interpret words with mispronounced vowels. Listeners who are less familiar with a foreign accent can quickly adapt to the way a particular speaker with that accent talks, even if that speaker is not talking in the listeners’ native language.