Professor Emeritus Tracey Derwing will give the annual Quentin Johnson Linguistics Lecture on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. Her title and abstract are below. She will also give a talk on Tuesday afternoon in the department (title to be announced). Please put this on your schedule. Location to be announced.
Accent-Schmaccent: What Really Matters to Understanding
Second Language Speakers
People often have trouble understanding what a second language (L2) speaker is saying. Encounters in fast food restaurants and telephone exchanges with call centre personnel can result in irritation, with the native speaker of English complaining about foreign accents being very difficult to follow. “Why can’t they just speak English?” is not an uncommon response to such encounters. We have seen this played out in the movies time and time again, but most of us have also experienced some frustration ourselves with a failure to communicate. Sometimes blame enters the picture – usually the L2 speaker is on the receiving end, but occasionally listeners blame themselves for not having a good ‘ear’. However the real culprit lies not so much with the interlocutors (although their willingness to communicate is definitely a factor) but with several different aspects of language and speech (and even our development as babies) that conspire to make some L2 speakers difficult to understand. We will examine linguists’ investigations of phenomena such as ‘intelligibility,’ comprehensibility,’ ‘accent,’ and ‘fluency’ and their relationship to successful (or unsuccessful) oral communication. We will also consider the effects of vocabulary, grammar, and background knowledge on listening comprehension. ‘Accent reduction’ has become a big business, but does it work? We will explore the unsavoury side of this endeavour. Finally, we’ll consider research findings that show what both the L2 speaker and the native listener can do to successfully improve their mutual communication.