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Know What I'm Saying? Mais Oui!

By Elizabeth SvobodaDecember 3, 2003 6:00 AM


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Nonnative speakers seem to understand each other’s accented English just fine. In experiments, linguistics graduate student Tessa Bent and her colleagues at Northwestern University observed that nonnative listeners found the English of nonnative speakers just as intelligible as that of natives. The effect held true even when the native language of listener and speaker differed. Bent calls this the “mismatched interlanguage speech intelligibility benefit.”

She suspects the benefit can be traced to similarities in the ways nonnative speakers acquire and use English. “Everyone applies some of the same general strategies in learning a second language,” she says. For instance, nonnative speakers from a variety of first-language backgrounds tend to overemphasize the ending consonant in words like “what,” a tactic other nonnative speakers would recognize and understand. Bent says her research will next concentrate on how these similarities improve comprehension: “We want to find out more about why people are starting at different places and arriving at the same linguistic destination.”

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