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Helping non-natives speak English more clearly

Jonathan Porter has been researching what factors make non-native English speakers more comprehensible. 

A linguistics major, Porter received a $1,500 ORCA grant to pursue this research with Mark Tanner, assistant professor of Linguistics and English Language. After Tanner invited students in his introductory linguistics class to get involved with faculty research, Porter was the only student in the class to volunteer.

“When I first got involved with this research, I took a risk stepping into something I didn’t know a lot about, it was a learning process,” Porter said. “But I’m glad I did -- as an undergrad you don’t just have to do required coursework, you can also do interesting research projects.”

Building off a graduate thesis, they conducted a study to understand what impact pausing, word stress and pitch have on making speech understandable for native speakers. The earlier project had identified the frequency of pronunciation errors in each passage. So the new study digs further, seeking to identify  how the various errors influenced native English speakers’ ability to comprehend speech.

“If we really want to help non-native speakers be more intelligible, appropriate stress and pitch patterns are going to be important,” Tanner said.

 Porter’s research uses a paired rating system that was developed by Dennis Eggett, head of BYU’s Center for Statistical Consultation and Collaborative Research.  The system is comparable to a sports ranking system. The researchers paired passages against each other and developed a win-loss record for each passage.  This way, they could see which speech errors in the passages were the most important to a high comprehensibility ranking.

Their research found that pausing was not a significant factor in the comprehensibility ratings, but word stress and pitch were.  In the study, non-native and native English speaker raters listened and compared the paired passages. The two groups of raters selected which one out of the pair was most understandable and then provided reasons for their choice.  Each rater scored a total of twelve paired listening tasks.

“For example, say you have the sentence, ‘Chicago, Los Angeles and New York are the largest cities in the United States,’” Porter said. “A word stress error can be made by saying ‘United’ with the stress on the first instead of the second syllable.  A pitch pattern error would occur if the person raised his pitch at the end of the phrase on the word ‘States’ instead of having the pitch fall.  Pausing errors often occur in a long phrase when the person pauses more frequently than at phrase boundaries.”

The ORCA grant Porter received provided funding to help him present this paper with Tanner at the International TESOL Conference in Boston last March. The presentation will be written up in a co-authored manuscript to be submitted to a linguistics and language learning journal. After graduation, Porter hopes to attend law school.


Writer: Courtney D. Smith

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