IU professor awarded $356K to study foreign accent development in children

Tessa Bent, assistant professor at the IU Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, will conduct this research at a time when one out of five people in the United States speaks a language other than English while at home.

“We know quite a lot about how adults are able to do this, but we don’t know how this skill develops in childhood,” Bent said. “To me, it is very interesting to ask how children are able to learn to accurately understand the speech of talkers that can sound very different from one another and can sound radically different from the child’s own speech.”

The National Institutes of Health recognized the importance of understanding how children might or might not overcome foreign-accented speech variables. The importance of this research was one of the reasons the National Institutes of Health made Bent one of the first IU faculty members to receive grant funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“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.”

Bent intends to test how children perceive foreign-accented speech compared to native-accented speech.

“I plan to assess the cognitive-linguistic skills that may underlie the ability to compensate for variability,” Bent said. 

Bent will test children’s vocabulary to study whether children who know more words understand foreign-accented speech better. She will also test children for phonological memory to see whether those with better short-term memory abilities might also be better at perceiving foreign-accented speech.

Karen Forrest, chair of the IU department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, said this research is important and significant because not much is known about how different levels of variability contribute to speech acquisition.

“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,” Forrest said.

Bent said she intends to investigate how children develop the ability to understand the speech of talkers who sound very different from each other and very different from the child’s own speech.

“The ease and speed of language development in childhood has always amazed me, and now I am going to study how children are not only able to learn a single representation of the way a word sounds, but how children develop the flexibility to understand many different sounding productions of words,” Bent said.

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