Dear Language Nerd,
Help! My TA for my physics course next semester is from India, and I’ve heard his English is terrible. Any tips for survival, preferably with my GPA intact?
Here’s the first step: don’t panic! In fact, do the opposite. Prepare yourself mentally to have a difficult time catching things the first week or so, but to quickly get used to your TA’s accent and soon find it nothing more than occasional mild amusement. Why? Because a surprisingly large amount of accent is not in the voice of the speaker, but in the mind of the hearer.
Don’t believe me? I refer you then to Dr. Donald Rubin of the University of Georgia, who did one of the most fascinating experiments I’ve ever heard of. He taped a native English-speaking white woman giving a brief astronomy lecture, as if for a course. Then he played this tape for students, showing some of them a picture of a white woman and some a picture of an East Asian woman. The students who saw an Asian picture reported hearing an Asian accent, and — wait for it — they scored lower on a post-lecture quiz. Same tape! Same woman! Just the idea that she might not be a native English speaker! Isn’t that bizarre? And Rubin (and others) have done these kinds of experiments many, many times (I like Rubin because he’s so readable, but if you want the technical stuff, visit Okim Kang).
So you’re mentally prepared. Now what? Patience, grasshopper. No, seriously, patience. Familiarity is a huge part of ease-of-accent, and there’s several ways that it’ll affect you. Familiarity with non-native speakers in general (got any Spanish friends? Then you’re ahead of the game!), familiarity with a particular variety of non-native English (got any Indian friends? You’re golden!) and familiarity with a particular non-native speaker (thus the giving of a week or two) will all make passing the class drastically easier. Get ready, here comes the Obvious Train chugging into the station: different English-second-language speakers have different patterns to their accents. If not, we wouldn’t be able to imitate a Russian accent when we need a good mobster or a French one when we need a lover and/or sous chef. A lot of understanding an accent is catching those patterns, and they’re very systematic. A German speaker might say final consonants lightly (“haff” for “have”), a Japanese speaker is likely to say z or d instead of th (“Za Beatlesu,” and we’ll have to talk about The Weirdness of TH sometime), and a Spanish speaker is likely to put an “e” before words that begin with S (“Espanish espeaker”). Occasionally someone’s English will be so bad that this it will just be impossible to understand them, but if your TA has been cleared to teach at university then it’s much more likely that once you’ve trained your ears to catch the pattern of the accent, you’ll be able to switch it on in your head and motor along, no problem. (This actually happens so systematically that it causes difficulties for English Second Language teachers, who can get so used to non-native speech that they have trouble noticing their students’ problems.)
There’s one other kind of familiarity that deserves a mention: familiarity with the topic. In fact (according to the rather venerable but still interesting studies of Gass and Varonis), topic familiarity is what’s most likely to make two people intelligible to each other. It makes sense; they’ll have vocabulary in common and they’ll be motivated to understand each other. I definitely saw this in my own college classes. Before I took astronomy, I asked some friends about the foreign TA I’d have. My buds who liked astronomy rated his accent a mild annoyance at worst, but my buds who hated astronomy (and so tended to tune him out) couldn’t make heads or tails of him. I liked astronomy; I made an A in the class. So, uh, hope you like physics.
The Language Nerd
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References! SO MANY REFERENCES
You have just got to check these experiments out. They’re crazy. As far as I can tell, they’re not available online, so you may need to wander into the nearest university library (or perhaps your google-fu is better than mine). A relevant summary-type essay of Rubin’s is available here.
Rubin, Donald. “Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants.” Research in Higher Education. 33.4 (1992): 511-531.
Rubin, Donald and Melanie Williams-James. “The impact of writer nationality on mainstream teachers’ judgments of composition quality.” Journal of Second Language Writing. 6.2 (1997): 139-154.
Rubin, Donald, Stuart Ainsworth, Eunsook Cho, Don Turk and Laura Winn. “Are greek letter social organizations a factor in undergraduates’ perceptions of international instructors?” International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 23.1 (1999): 1-12.
(The answer is “no.”)
This one involves Detroit citizens hating on Canadians:
Niedzielski, Nancy. “The Effect of Social Information on the Perception of Sociolinguistic Variables.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 18.1 (1999): 62-85.
And this one involves ESL students idealizing native English speakers:
Hu, Guiling and Stephanie Lindemann. “Stereotypes of Cantonese English, Apparent Native/Non-Native Status, and Their Effect on Non-Native English Speakers’ Perception.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. 30.3 (2009): 253-269.
So weird! And here’s some work from Ye Olde 1980s on the same basic topic:
Orth, John Ludwig. University undergraduate evaluational reactions to the speech of foreign teaching assistants. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1982.
Here’s the book about familiarity:
Gass, Susan and Evangeline Marlos Varonis. “The Effect of Familiarity on the Comprehensibility of Non-Native Speech.” 34.1 (1984).
And finally, the srs bznss maths and what not (and check who Kang is working with in half of these):
Kang, Okim. “Ratings of L2 Oral Performance in English: Relative Impact of Rater Characteristics and Acoustic Measures of Accentedness.” Spaan Fellow Working Papers in Second or Foreign Language Assessment. 6 (2008): 181-205.
Kang, Okim and Donald Rubin. “Reverse Linguistic Stereotyping: Measuring the Effect of Listener Expectations on Speech Evaluation.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology. 28.4 (2009): 441-456.
Kang, Okim. “Relative salience of suprasegmental features on judgments of L2 comprehensibility and accentedness.” System. 38.2 (2010): 301-315.
Kang, Okim, Donald Rubin and Lucy Pickering. “Suprasegmental Measures of Accentedness and Judgments of Language Learner Proficiency in Oral English.” The Modern Language Journal. 94.4 (2010): 554-566.
This is something I’ve been interested in for a while, can you tell?
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