Ashtari (2014) reported that intermediate and advanced students of English as a second language (ESL) at a California university felt that many native speakers of English do not even make an attempt to understand their English, even though the speaker feels that what is said is grammatically accurate. The students felt that when talking to a native speaker of English in the U.S., what they say is grammatically correct, but native speakers claim not to understand and ask them to repeat. This experience is discouraging: 80% stated that they would not try to start a conversation voluntarily with a native speaker for fear of not making themselves understood.
It could be the case that these reactions happen because the ESL students are, in fact, difficult to understand because of their accents. We suspect that this is not the case. In our experience, we have found that intermediate and advanced ESL students at the university level are rarely totally incomprehensible or even difficult to understand.
Why then did the ESL acquirers experience problems with the people they tried to interact with? Rubin (1992) provides an explanation. In his study, he played recordings of unaccented native-speaker English to subjects and showed them one of two pictures of adult males: one obviously Asian and one obviously Caucasian. The group that saw the picture of the Asian felt that the speaker had an accent. In other words, accent was perceived but did not exist: the native-speaker judges didn’t pay attention to the accent but made assumptions about it because of the appearance and race of the adult speakers in the pictures.
There is no doubt that ESL students, even those at a university, have accents in English. It is doubtful, however, that their accents are so heavy that native speakers have serious problems understanding in more than a few rare cases when mispronunciation of certain sounds may affect meaning, for instance ship versus sheep. We suspect that native speakers who behave as if they don’t understand what the speaker is saying are influenced by their presuppositions, not by what they actually hear. Some efforts to improve accents may be attempts to solve a problem that is in the mind of the listener, not the language produced by the speaker.
Research is consistent with our observations: Munro and Derwing (1995) reported that while the adult second language acquirers they studied had accents ranging from moderate to heavy, only 4% of the speakers were judged to be extremely difficult to understand (rating of 9 on a 1–9 scale) and 64% were easy to understand (rating of 1–3). They also concluded that “a strong foreign accent does not necessarily reduce the comprehensibility or intelligibility of L2 speech” (p. 74). Their subjects, however, were more advanced than typical ESL students: all had been graduate students for at least one year at a university in Canada and had scored 550 or above on the TOEFL.
Ashtari, N. (2014). “Non-native Speech and Feedback: The relationship between non-native speakers’ production and native speakers’ reaction.” International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 9(2), 9–17. www.researchgate.net/publication/341283942_Non-native_Speech_and_Feedback_The_Relationship_between_Non-native_Speakers%27_Production_and_Native_Speakers%27_Reaction
Munro, M., and Derwing, T. (1995). “Foreign Accent, Comprehensibility, and Intelligibility in the Speech of Second Language Learners.” Language Learning 45(1), 73–97.
Rubin, D. (1992). “Nonlanguage Factors Affecting Undergraduates’ Judgments of Nonnative English-Speaking Teaching Assistants.” Research in Higher Education, 33(4), 511–31. www.jstor.org/stable/40196047
Stephen Krashen taught at University of Southern California. He is now professor emeritus.
Nooshan Ashtari currently teaches at the University of Southern California.