Regional Dialects and L2 Learners

My original intent was to write about our new article coming out in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (shameless plug I know), but this news article about L2 learners learning to distinguish spoken words by reading caught my eye.  

In the original study published in PLoS ONE the authors argue that seeing a written word in addition to hearing it helps listeners to figure out what the word is (when it’s distorted or an element is missing). This helps listeners within a language understand another regional dialect (say an American English speaker hearing Australian English or a Mexican Spanish speaker listening to Argentine Spanish). Of course some of the differences are lexical but many are about the sounds and stress patterns. 

The authors proposed that this same strategy could be used for second language learners who were used to another regional variety of that language. They had Dutch speakers who knew English watch excerpts of TV shows in Australian English or Scottish English (the participants indicated they had not spent significant time in either country). Three conditions were used: no subtitles, subtitles in English, subtitles in Dutch with half the participants watching Scottish and the other half Australian excerpts.

The Dutch participants were tested after watching 25 minutes of an episode. They listened to sentences from Scottish English and Australian English and had to repeat them.  One quarter of the sentences were from the show they had watched, 1/4 were in the same dialect, but hadn’t heard the particular sentences before, and the rest (1/2) were from the other dialect. So, what happened? Did the English subtitles help? And did they help listeners make sense of the regional dialect they did not listen to initially? Did the Dutch subtitles help at all (remember there are Dutch-English cognates)? Here’s what happened. First just listening to the TV shows in the foreign regional accent helped the participants understand what was said. Also, subtitles in Dutch (the participant’s native langauge) helped them understand words they had already heard but actually hindered recognition of words they hadn’t heard in the TV shows. Providing subtitles in English (the foreign language for them) helped them understand both words they’d heard and those they hadn’t.  Here, the authors propose that what the participants already knew about the words helped them to in effect “recalibrate” their perception so that what they heard matched up better with the words they knew.

What does this tell us? Well, it tells me that watching Spanish-language soap operas with my mom when I go visit her is not in vain. I’m “re-tuning” my Spanish language perception after using mainly English all year in my job!  Probably what would help me more is to turn on the subtitles (such as they are) on the Spanish-language shows.

What does this tell us beyond my personal mother-daughter TV watching habits? Well, for adults learning a second language, hearing and reading together may well help them to get a handhold on a second language. For kids? (sorry, can’t help it, I do child language research). I wonder if reading to them (and having them follow along) would help them to better comprehend what they hear (as well as what they read)?


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