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Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's English, but how do children perceive all those foreign accents?

NIH grant among first for IU research being funded through ARRA stimulus

May 13, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- With one in five people in the U.S. speaking a language other than English when they are at home, Tessa Bent's research into how children perceive so many different varieties of foreign-accented English has never been more timely.

Bent image

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

Tessa Bent, an assistant professor in the IU Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, has received funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to further her research into how variables in foreign-accented English may influence speech development in children.

Print-Quality Photo

Recognizing the importance of understanding how children may or may not overcome foreign-accented speech variables, the National Institutes of Health has made Bent, an assistant professor in the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, one of the first IU faculty members to receive grant funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

"In the real world children hear speech that contains an enormous amount of variability, including factors like a talker's dialect, gender, native tongue, age and emotional state," Bent said. "However, language acquisition, performance in school and social interactions all require the ability to compensate for this substantial variability."

How children develop that ability to accurately understand the speech of talkers who can sound very different from one another, and radically different from the child's own speech, is what Bent will investigate with the $356,000 in funding provided by the National Institutes of Health. Most specifically, she wants to explore variability introduced by differences in the native language backgrounds of the talkers.

"To understand a foreign-accented word, listeners need to map a potentially novel, unfamiliar production of a word to their own internal representation of the word," she explained. "I plan to test how children perceive foreign-accented speech compared to native-accented speech and to assess the cognitive-linguistic skills that may underlie the ability to compensate for variability."

Researchers will create an audio database of native and non-native English speakers reading words, sentences and paragraphs, in English, designed for testing children. The database can then be used as a tool for assessing speech, language and hearing problems, in interventions for children and adults with speech and language disorders, for training English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and for research on the perception of foreign-accented speech by adults and children with and without speech and language disorders or hearing loss. The database would also be made public and be offered for use to a wide range of teachers, researchers and clinicians, Bent said.

Bent will test children for vocabulary knowledge to study whether or not children who know more words are better at perceiving foreign-accented. The children will also be tested for phonological memory to determine if those with better short-term memory abilities might also be better at perceiving foreign-accented speech.

Bent's work is important because so little is known about how different levels of variability contribute to speech acquisition, according to Karen Forrest, chair of the IU Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

"This grant award is an important step in Tessa's research program and complements many of the goals of the department," Forrest said. "Speech perception and production are extraordinarily complex behaviors that are developed early in life; yet the factors that influence typical versus disordered speech acquisition still are unknown. This is an area of intensive investigation by many researchers in IU's Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences."

Understanding how children resolve variability in the speech they receive is extremely important toward understanding how they in turn learn to speak, Forrest noted.

"It's a critical issue for understanding children's speech development," she said.

NIH for years has supported Bent's research, including her pre-doctoral work on how listerners' first language influences the wa they perceive prosodic contrasts in other languages, specifically how natie English listeners perceive the pitch paterns in Mandarin Chinese. That work was funded through her receipt of the agency's Ruth L. Kirschstein Individual National Research Service Award in 2003. Two years later she was awarded a Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Speech Sciences to work with David Pisoni, director of IU's Speech Research Laboratory and a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and also Diane Kewley-Port, a professor of Cognitive Sciences and Speech and Hearing Sciences and director of IU's Speech Psychophysics Lab. This most recent grant came through NIH's National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

To speak with Bent, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or