Study offers new insights into how we comprehend and evaluate pronunciation

Previous study results have suggested that people generally comprehend and evaluate the pronunciation of a speaker less well if they suspect that the speaker is ethnically foreign. However, a new study by Dr. Adriana Hanulíková, junior professor of language and cognition at the German Department of the University of Freiburg, shows that the relationships between language comprehension, pronunciation evaluation, and expected speaker origin are more complex than originally thought.

In her experiment, Hanulíková played German-language recordings with standard pronunciation, a Palatine accent and a Korean accent to test subjects and showed them alternating portrait photos of supposedly corresponding speakers: three women with Asian, three with European appearance. If the appearance matched the accent, the subjects were better able to repeat and transcribe the utterances. At the same time, they rated the pronunciation of all speakers as worse when shown photos of the women with Asian appearance, but with gradual differences in different age groups. It was the first study of its kind in the European language area and also the first in the world to differentiate between age groups and to work with subjects outside a university context. Adriana Hanulíková published her results in the journal Plos One. They will also be the basis for her work within the new research focus Diversity in Language and Cognition at the Freiburg Institute for Advances Studies (FRIAS).

The more expectations match the pronunciation, the better we understand

When the 172 subjects were played recordings in a Palatine accent and simultaneously saw an Asian-looking face as the speaker, they were less able to transcribe and repeat the statements after a short adaptation phase than when they heard the exact same recording and saw a European-looking face as the speaker. However, when they heard a recording with a Korean accent and saw an Asian-looking face in addition, they were able to understand the recording better than when it was associated with a European-looking face. “This result suggests that our language comprehension is influenced by origin-based expectations in a very specific way,” says Hanulíková. “Namely, the more closely our expectations match the pronunciation, the better we understand the person.”

“However, there are age-related individual differences here that previous studies have not yet captured,” says Hanulíková. The aforementioned effect is most pronounced in the youngest cohort (12–16 years old) and the oldest (70–92), and least pronounced in the middle cohort (30–45). The latter understands the standard language, the Palatine dialect and the Korean accent in the same way, whether from a supposedly native or foreign speaker. “Among other things, this allows us to assume,” says Hanulíková, “that we are dealing with very diverse groups in terms of experience and cognitive demands. This may lead to substantial differences in the way social information is taken into account in language comprehension.”

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