Foreign accent, cognitive load and intelligibility of EMI lectures

Christian Jensen, Jacob Thøgersen


This study investigated the effect of foreign accent on the understanding of spoken texts in two different contexts: (1) when listeners extract surface level meaning of simple utterances, labelled “intelligibility in simple tasks” (IS) below, and (2) when they answer content questions to a complex text, labelled “intelligibility in complex tasks” (IC) below. We hypothesised that foreign accented speech would require more cognitive processing in all situations, but that it would have little detrimental effect on intelligibility in the simpler of the two tasks. We expected decreased intelligibility as a result of combining the increased cognitive workload of the foreign accent with the higher cognitive demands of the second task. In other words, the study investigated an interaction effect between task complexity and processing difficulties caused by accented speech. In Experiment 1, IS and processing times were measured in a sentence verification task with ten native and non-native speakers of English. Two speakers, with similar intelligibility but yielding different reaction times, were selected for Experiment 2, which measured IC using simulated university lectures. The results indicate the hypothesised interaction between context and the understanding of accented speech. We discuss the theoretical and methodological implications of this, as well as the relevance of our results for English-medium instruction at Nordic universities.


intelligibility; comprehensibility; accent; cognitive load; English-medium instruction

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