I Can't Understand Your Accent, So Keep Talking

I have this friend from New York who, most of the time, speaks in a normal (that is to say, southern) accent that she's acquired as a result of being surrounded for so long by people who speak the King's English ('cause Elvis was a southerner). Occasionally, though, usually after she's been talking to someone back home, she slips into her old Jamaica Queens accent, and when she does, I spend the first thirty seconds or so just trying to figure out whether she's speaking English, and I don't even bother trying to understand the meaning of those strangely accented words she's uttering. After that period of complete incomprehension, though, I seem to get used to her relapsed accent, and suddenly I can understand her perfectly well. Of course, by this time, I've missed enough of what she's saying that I have no idea what she's talking about, but at least the words now make sense.

I'd noticed this happen several times, but never really thought about it, partly because I'm not a psycholinguist, so that sort of thing doesn't interest me enough to think that deeply about it, and partly because I figure everyone should speak with a southern accent, and if they don't, it's not my fault I can't understand them. But earlier this week, I read a paper by Maye et al. titled "The Weckud Wetch of the Wast: Lexical Adaptation to a Novel Accent" (1), because the title sucked me in, and learned a bit about how I adopt to my friends' crazy Queens accent. And I thought I'd share what I learned with you.

Maye et al. begin by citing a bunch of research demonstrating that we humans are sort of accent experts. We're adept at adjusting to people's accents, and we are able to pick out subtle features of various accents that distinguish people culturally, geographically, etc. at a pretty fine grain (that's why I can tell the difference between someone from Alabama and Georgia, for example, and not just between someone from Georgia and Maine, just by hearing them talk).

How do we adapt so easily, and so quickly, to a wide variety of accents that make the same word sound completely different (Maye et al. use the example of "dead," which a selection of American accents would pronounce "ded," "dad," and "dayed")? Maye et al. propose that what people do when hearing an accent different from one they've been listening to (or generally listen to) is to remap vowels -- most of the differences between accents take place in the vowel sounds, as the example of "dead" illustrates -- onto different areas of the "vowel space." If you're used to hearing people pronounce the vowel sound in "dead" as a long a, like in "dad," and suddenly hear someone from Nashville pronouncing it with a long-a (as in "day-ed"), you just remap your expectations for that vowel sound onto another part of the vowel space. You can think of the vowel space as sort of like a map with all of the different speech sounds for vowels (or at least a particular vowel), and when we hear an accent, we just move the flag representing the vowel to the part of the map where that accent tends to keep that vowel.

To test this hypothesis, Maye et al. conducted a clever little experiment. They had participants come in for two experimental sessions on different days. On the first day, the participants listened to a 20 minute passage from the Wizard of Oz spoken in a "standard American English accent." On the second day, they listened to the same passage, but with some of the vowel sounds changed to produce a different accent (both accents were produced using a speech synthesizer). If you want the details of the vowel changes, here they are (from p. 547):

The artificial accent was created by lowering front vowels in F1-F2 vowel space, such that the vowel /i/ was produced as [I], /I/, as [ε], /ε/ as [æ], and /æ/ as [a]. The diphthong /ei/ was produced as [εI], and /a/ (a low central vowel) was unaltered, resulting in a merger with /æ/.

In other words (if I understand their symbols correctly), from the first session to the second session, the long-e sound in "sheet" became the i sound in "hit," the i sound in "hit" became the e sound in "wet," that e sound was shifted to the a sound in "bat," and the a sound in "bat" became the o sound in "not."

In both sessions, after hearing the passage, participants completed a lexical decision task. This is a commonly used task (I have participants doing one as I type this) in which participants hear or read a letter-string, and have to decide as fast and as accurately as they can whether it's a word. In the Maye et al. task, participants heard the strings, some of which would, with the change of accents, sound like non-words in the first session, but words in the second. For example, participants might hear the word "wetch," pronounced with the e sound in "bet," which would be a non-word in the first session. However, after shifting the i sound in "bit" to the e sound in "bet" in the second session's passage, if participants adapted to the accent, "wetch" would be interpreted as "witch," and participants would indicate that it was a word.

And of course, since I'm writing about it, that's what participants did. In the first session, participants indicated that strings like "wetch" were words 39% of the time (actual words are correctly indicated about 90% of the time), but in the second session, they said "wetch" was a word 59% of the time, indicating that they had adapted to the accent and carried their remapped vowel sounds over to the lexical decision task.

In a second experiment, they looked at how specific the adaptation was. For example, if we hear a shift from "dad" to "dayed" in the pronunciation of the word "dead," in addition to remapping this vowel sound, do we also remap the vowel sound in "dope?" This time, participants heard the same two passages in two sessions, but instead of strings like "wetch," which, based on the shift in vowel sounds between the two passages would sound like a non-word in one session and a word in the second, they heard words like "weech," which involved a completely different vowel sound. This time, participants' responses to weech and related words were no different between the two sessions (64% vs. 69%, a non-significant difference). Assuming that this data doesn't reflect a ceiling effect, which would mean that respones to "weech" couldn't get much higher, and thus potential differences might be missed, this result suggests that our adaptation is accent-specific. That is, our remapping is specific to the particular vowel sound changes from one accent to another.

Now I know why, when she starts speaking, I can't understand a thing my friend says in her New York accent, but after listening for a bit, I can understand her perfectly. At first, my vowels are just mapped to the wrong speech sounds, but as she speaks, my brain remaps them to the appropriate speech sounds (perhaps given my knowledge of Jamaica Queens accents, e.g., that they're totally whack), and suddenly she sounds like she's speaking English again.

1Maye, J., Aslin, R.N., Tanenhaus, M.K. (2008). The Weckud Wetch of the Wast: Lexical Adaptation to a Novel Accent. Cognitive Science, 32(3), 543-562.

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I rented the movie Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and didn't understand what anyone said -- except for the guys with the heavy Scottish accents.

Last weekend I checked out a golf tournament on TV and heard a man speaking in some foreign language. About fifteen minutes in, I realized I was hearing some English words, and then I worked it out: he had a thick Scottish accent.

If you watch the movie Nell several times, you will become much better at understanding what her character is saying.

We also quickly adapt to quirky pronunciations. Three common examples:
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I've just been reading Pinker's How the Mind Works, and he was discussing a similar example of a southerner saying "send a pen", sounding like "sinned a pin" that we can rule right out as not making sense.

I've spent most of my life living overseas and I can definitely attest to the "lag" it takes to understand an accent.

I often tell people who are having trouble making themselves understood in a foreign language that they should speak several sentences when starting up a conversation, to give the other person a chance to "catch up" to their accent. Often non-native speakers are hesitant about speaking, and try to say as little as possible, for example walking into a store and saying "Where's the sugar?" or even just "sugar?". However, if they lengthen their request by saying "Hello - I'm looking for some sugar. Can you tell me where the sugar is?", they'll often be understood much better because of that "lag".

For Amir - the lag is shortest (understanding quickest) when native speakers listen to non-native speakers. Usually after a few sentences, a native speaker can understand a new foreign accent. Comprehension is much slower when non-native speakers have to decode regional accents in the local native language. In the US, I know very few non-native English speakers who can decode strong black or southern accents easily, even after living or working for months with people who speak those dialects.

I speak Mandarin Chinese, but it is not my first language. I often experience the same effect when in China. Most people I can understand immediately, but I will sometimes come across a person whose speech is completely incomprehensible to me for several seconds. Once that person has spoken three or four sentences, I generally decode it, and I can understand their speech normally (subject to the constraints of my own incomplete knowledge of the language).

When I'm in Taiwan, it is generally the case that a person whose accent scrambles my parser is an adult male speaker. This may be because I am more used to hearing Mandarin spoken by a woman's voice, or there may be something else going on, but I don't have this problem in China, and I suspect it has to do with the Taiwanese men whose words I have trouble understanding speaking with a mushy, unclear diction. My understanding of their words usually does not improve with exposure, so this is likely a different effect.

Both anecdotal, but amusing (to me, and hopefully you) and topical:

After being married to an Englishman for several years, i lost the ability to distinguish between a generic BBC type English accent, and an American one. Regional ones were no problem, but the Newcaster Accents in my brain were both too familiar and therefore it often took me minutes to figure out if a speaker was English or American.

Now i live in Boston, where an FOF disseminated the story of a woman named Farmer to whom he had to fax some paperwork. She called back immediately and said, No Sir, my name is FAMA, not Farmer. The narrator had mapped the R's into her name, assuming her to be a local with the resulting accent.

Very intersting article. It happens all the time with kids, too. You have no idea what some 2 year old is saying, until you spend a few hours (or days). Your own kids you understand completely (and have to translate).

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6EQUJ5 - Your not alone with difficulties over certain Scottish accents.

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Two relevant things that amuse me:

I have seen PBS pieces that provided English subtitles for people speaking English - a gentleman with a heavy Australian accent, for example.

And my favorite American accent: Baltimorese. Like a mix of New England and Southern accents. Like the experience you describe, the first time I encountered it, it took me about 30 seconds of listening to realize I was hearing English. After that half minute, I understood it just fine. But for that first half minute, it might as well have been Greek.

Okay, a third thought: George Bernard Shaw on Americans and British: "Two people divided by a common language..."

Blundered into this ... yes, it's hard for the non-native speaker to cope with an accent. I spoke fluent Spanish, of the Mexican persuasion, and the first 10 minutes of speaking with a Spaniard with a full-on Castilian accent was totally incomprehensible.

But, accent-blindness can happen. I worked with a bilingual Mexican businessman and noticed nothing odd about his accent in English. One day I was passing his door and heard someone speaking a strong Brooklyn accent. To my surprise, it was the businessman on the phone, not avisitor. My mind had assigned him the usual Mexican accent and it wasn't untilI heard him without seeing him that I really heard him.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 28 Jul 2008 #permalink

Greatt article, much thanks to ya. Dan Howitt.

By Dan Howitt (not verified) on 27 Dec 2008 #permalink

are you kidding? i can NEVER understand southern accents! especially when the person speaking speaks quickly. it's especially annoying on the phone. sometimes i feel like it would be easier to understand a person from a call center in india.
people from nj are the only people who speak correctly (and i'm NOT talking about people who think they are tony soprano...we DO NOT all talk like that). lol...

hi there I am not a native english speaker my native language is spanish, and english is my second one.

fortunaletly we do not have the problem in spanish language, we (native spanish speaker) can talk to a person from any latin american country and understand each other, of course there a regional words that we do not understand but that is not a problem for us.

that is one of my main problem when i speak english some american understand my accent others do not what a dilemma

By Hermogenes (not verified) on 15 Dec 2009 #permalink

as we say in Jamaica, Queens "With friends like these... Well, Who needs friends like these?"

I actually have a similar phenomenon with foreign languages.

Understanding French and Spanish to some degree, I have made the experience a couple of times that I would listen to someone speak in Portuguese (which is similar, but also quite different to Spanish) and as long as I unconsciously thought it was Spanish I could follow it.

But as soon as my consciousness kicked in and said "Wait a minute, this is Portuguese, I don't understand this!" my understanding dropped as well.

Same with Italian. As long as I can keep my conscious mind out of it I understand quite well what is said. But if my conscious mind finds out I'm listening to stuff I shouldn't be able to understand, it cuts me off.

Another cool effect I find is when you don't understand someone (speaking in your own language for once ;) and ask him to repeat himself. Before he/she gets the chance to repeat, the mind has done some (it seems quite processing heavy) likelihood matching and came up with the most likely meaning of the formerly incomprehensible mess.

Fascinating effects. I guess our mind is capable of more than we know.


As you described, much of the strangeness in accents comes from shifted vowel sounds. Wouldn't it be nice if before speaking with someone we could receive a 'vowel sound sampler' to listen to. Something like "Hi there, how are you?"

It makes social conventions seem practical!


Came across this site whilst trying to research current issues in language learning for an assignment and just had to comment that you certainly have a captivating way of writing. Have bookmarked the page even!