Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that listening to accented speech is harder for the brain to process than native speech, and makes information harder to remember. While many studies have explored how hearing loss or listening to degraded speech can be more difficult to process or remember, the current study explores how listening to accented speech is different from other more widely studied forms of “effortful listening,” such as trying to hear speech in a noisy room or over a bad phone line.

ASA Preliminary findings of this study are being presented May 18-22, 2015 at the 169th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Kristin Van Engen, PhD

Kristin Van Engen, PhD, Washington University in St. Louis

According to presenter Kristin Van Engen, PhD, a post-doctoral research associate in the linguistics department at Washington University in St. Louis, accented speech can deviate from listener expectations in systematic ways. Van Engen posed the question, “If you’re working hard to understand a professor or doctor with a foreign accent, are you going to have more difficulty encoding the information you’re learning in memory?”

The answer to this question is not yet known, according to Van Engen, who reported that the issue has received relatively little attention in the scientific literature on foreign accent processing or effortful listening.

Van Engen and her colleagues conducted a study during which they tested the ability of young-adult native English speakers to store spoken words in their short-term memory. The researchers report that test subjects listened to lists of English words, voiced either with a standard American accent or with a pronounced, but still intelligible Korean accent. After a short time the lists would randomly stop and the listeners were asked to recall the last three words they had heard. All the volunteer listeners selected for the study were reportedly unfamiliar with a Korean accent.

According to the researchers, the listeners’ rate of recall for the most recently heard words was similarly high with both accents, but the study participants remembered the third word back only about 70 percent of the time when listening to a Korean accent, compared to about 80 percent when listening to a standard American accent.

Van Engen reports that the difference in recall rates might be due to the brain using some of its executive processing regions, which are generally used to focus attention and integrate and store information, to understand words spoken in an unfamiliar accent.

Van Engen and her colleagues are working to gather data on larger sets of listeners, as well as to test other brain functions that require processing spoken information, such as listening to a short lecture and later recalling and using the concepts discussed. She reports the team may also explore whether becoming familiar with a foreign accent would lessen the observed difference in memory functions.

The researchers hope the study results might help shape strategies for both listeners and foreign accented speakers to better communicate and ensure that the information they discussed is remembered.

The presentation 1aSC4, “Downstream effects of accented speech on memory,” was given at the ASA meeting on Monday, May 18 by Kristin Van Engen. The abstract can be found by searching for the presentation number on the ASA meeting abstract website.

According to an ASA announcement, the 169th Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) held May 18-22, 2015, at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel features nearly 1,000 presentations on sound and its applications in physics, engineering, music, architecture, and medicine.

Source: Acoustical Society of America (ASA), Washington University in St. Louis

Photo credits: ASA; Kristin Van Engen; Dreamstime: © Undrey |