The myth of unintelligibility

Students are frustrated that they can’t understand their professors’ accents, but research suggests that their mentality is holding them back from making progress

Three years ago, a Reddit thread titled “ASU Venting Thread. What do you hate about ASU?” gave students an organized forum to air their grievances about the University. 

One common complaint in the thread was that many engineering and mathematics professors speak with foreign accents, making learning the complex subjects even more difficult.

But linguistics research in accent intelligibility suggests that if students come to class with the right mentality, it is possible to understand accents that may seem difficult to comprehend. It also shows that students’ expectations of how easy their professor will be to understand influences accent intelligibility rather than racial bias, a commonly held belief.

Robert Matthews, an ASU alumnus and former mechanical and aerospace engineering student, said the lack of understanding can lead to students feeling too embarrassed to ask their professor to repeat themselves, having to attend tutoring, or in extreme cases, stopping going to lectures altogether.

He said at least half of his professors during his time as an engineering student were difficult to understand.

“It’s not that they weren’t willing to repeat things if you couldn’t understand, but sometimes you felt obligated to just drop it so that the class could move on,” Matthews said.

He said he attended tutoring for the classes in which he had trouble understanding the professors, something he didn’t have to do with professors without accents, and felt frustrated because going to class at times felt like a waste of time.

Ultimately, Matthews changed his major because he felt he would not be successful in the field of engineering.

Tanner Merry, a mechanical engineering junior at ASU, said the majority of his professors speak with accents.

Although Merry said he thinks it helps him pay more attention in class, “It might be terrible for some people who aren’t willing to ask to clarify things that they didn’t catch.”

The situation has caused students to take incorrect notes.

“I have ‘MARS algorithm’ in my notes when the professor was saying ‘Merge algorithm,’ which led to confusion during lecture and homework since it wasn't written anywhere,” one Reddit user in the thread said. 

Perhaps the main source of their frustration comes from the sentiment that they pay an exorbitant amount of tuition for an instructor they can’t understand.

Students say they don’t see the point of paying tuition when learning does not happen during class but instead occurs at independent tutoring sessions or while watching YouTube lectures.

When asked to comment on the situation, Lanelle Strawder, content manager for the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, said in an emailed statement that the school’s professors reflect the range of individuals its students will encounter in their academic journeys, professional careers and private lives. 

“If students encounter difficulty in the classroom, we encourage them to compare their learnings with other students, form study groups, gain understandings from their teaching assistant or instructor, and seek tutoring support at the college or university level,” Strawder said.

While the University administration encourages students to reach out for help when experiencing difficulty with professors’ foreign accents, linguistics research suggests that students are more than capable of learning to understand accents. 

What’s stopping them from doing so, said Molly Babel, associate professor of phonetics and psycholinguistics at the University of British Columbia, is their own expectations.

Students’ personal expectations of how easy or difficult a professor will be to understand plays a significant role in their ability to understand their professors’ accents.

“When it comes to students saying that they’re having a hard time understanding an instructor with an accent that they’re unfamiliar with, part of that difficulty just comes from the students thinking that it’s going to be difficult,” Babel said.

Babel has done extensive research on accent interpretation and specializes in the differences in how people speak based on regional accent differences, language and social differences.

In “Expectations and speech intelligibility,” a 2015 study published by The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, she wanted to determine whether a person’s biases affected their ability to understand accents, a commonly held notion, or if what made a difference was simply their expectation of the intelligibility of a person’s speech.

The 2015 study was done in response to earlier literature that suggested that a person’s biases contributed to accent intelligibility.

“We wanted to put this more squarely as a comparison of: Are you not necessarily malicious in your expectation, but are you just expecting the wrong thing? vs. Do you have a negative bias against this population?” she said.

40 participants (more than half of whom identified as being half or fully Asian, South Asian and/or Pacific Islander) were asked to type out the sentences they heard as they listened to an audio recording of a speaker of the local accent. One group of participants was shown images of the face of either a white Canadian or Chinese Canadian before listening to the audio, and the other group was not shown any images.

Before listening to the recordings, participants answered a series of tests meant to measure their perceived stereotypes of Asian people.

The Chinese Canadian speakers were perceived as less intelligible and rated as more accented when listeners were presented with a photo of the speakers.

Babel said that once listeners knew they were listening to a white Canadian vs. a Chinese Canadian, they suddenly had a harder time understanding the Chinese Canadian speakers.

Listeners’ scores on the preliminary biases tests had no effect on the results. The only variable that had value in the test was the answer to a question that asked participants who they spend more time with, white Canadians or Asian Canadians. Individuals who reported spending more time with Asian Canadians showed more of a loss of intelligibility when they were listening to Asian Canadian voices.

“This just really seems like people have this wrong stereotype that if you are of Asian descent, then you are going to speak the not-local variety of English,” Babel said. “The fact that it was reported more by people who spend more time with Asian Canadians leads us to believe that it’s not about people having these negative associations, it’s that people have the wrong associations.”

This study suggests that students’ biases do not affect their capability to understand their professors, and students who expect their professors to be difficult to understand will be less able to decipher their speech.

But does a student’s attitude toward the sound of their professor’s voice impact their ability to comprehend it?

In Babel’s study published in the Journal of the Association for Laboratory Phonology, “Do social preferences matter in lexical retuning?” researchers created an accent and produced two variations of that accent. One variant was socially preferred (pleasant sounding), and the other was socially dispreferred (unpleasant sounding). 

Participants were asked to measure their level of understanding of both variations of the made-up accent. The results indicated that disliking a voice does not impact a person’s ability to learn from that voice, as listeners were able to learn to understand both the pleasant and the unpleasant sounding voice. 

“It’s kind of a sigh of relief,” Babel said.

Students’ discouragement about the lack of language intelligibility from their instructors leads to inquiry about why lack of intelligibility occurs in the first place.

They feel as though their instructors may not possess adequate English skills due to the fact that the instructors are working at the University primarily for research. Teaching, students say, is just an additional requirement to holding a research position.

But Albert Boggess, professor and director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, said that this is not the case. 

He said that research faculty primarily teach upper-division and graduate classes because the school does not have enough professors who do research to cover the entire spectrum of classes. 

Boggess also said that the high amount of foreign professors is due to the fact that the majority of applicants for instructor positions are from other parts of the world.

“Math, engineering and the physical sciences all share this (circumstance),” he said. 

When American students go through engineering or math curriculum, they are more often than not interested in getting a job after they get their bachelor's degree to go off and work in the industry.

“Whereas for whatever cultural reasons,” Boggess said, “the international students are much more willing to go on and get a master's degree or a Ph.D.”

Boggess said all professors who are hired into the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences go through rigorous language proficiency evaluation, including a phone call or Skype session with Boggess and a mock lecture.

Even though potential instructors and their ability to communicate is vetted by the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, the problem of not understanding accents persists.

When considering the issue of students not being able to understand their instructors, Babel said it’s important to consider it from the perspective of the listener because intelligibility is contingent on the accumulated experiences of the listener.

Her advice for students that may be in this situation is to expose themselves more to the voice of their professors, watch their teachers’ faces move as they speak, sit in the front of the classroom, be engaged and have a positive attitude.

“Just pay attention and you’ll get there,” Babel said.


Reach the reporter at mrstelli@asu.edu or follow @mollystellino on Twitter.

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