Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Linguistic Dimensions of Accentedness and Comprehensibility: Exploring Task and Listener Effects in Second Language French

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Linguistic Dimensions of Accentedness and Comprehensibility: Exploring Task and Listener Effects in Second Language French

Article excerpt

Introduction

The ability to successfully communicate in a second language (L2) has become increasingly important as interactions across cultural and linguistic boundaries become increasingly frequent. Within this larger context, L2 communication is often equated with speakers' capacity to "pass" for a native speaker or their ability to sound nativelike (e.g., Jenkins, 2000). Levis (2005) described this belief in terms of the nativeness principle, referring to the reduction of a speaker's accent as being one of the goals of language teaching. Nativeness (defined in this manner) is typically measured through listeners' accentedness ratings, targeting how strongly L2 speech is influenced by the speaker's native language (L1) or is colored by other nonnative features (Derwing & Munro, 2015).

According to Levis (2005), intelligibility and comprehensibility offer another frame for understanding pronunciation. Intelligibility refers to listeners' actual understanding of L2 speech and is assessed through listeners' transcriptions of an utterance (e.g., Munro & Derwing, 1999) or their performance on cloze tests (e.g., Hayes-Harb, Smith, Bent, & Bradlow, 2008). Comprehensibility, which denotes listeners' perceived ease or difficulty in understanding a speaker's L2 speech, is traditionally measured through listener-based scalar ratings. Because comprehensibility ratings are highly correlated with intelligibility measures (Derwing & Munro, 2015), comprehensibility is both a user-friendly and a popular metric of understanding in a broad sense (Levis, 2005) included in various high-stakes assessment instruments (e.g., the Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL], the International English Language Test System [IELTS]). Focusing on the constructs of intelligibility and comprehensibility shifts the emphasis from nativelike speech to a focus on attaining understandable speech.

Regardless of L2 speakers' orientation toward nonaccented speech or toward intelligible or comprehensible performance, a fundamental question for language researchers and instructors wishing to help their learners attain their goals is which linguistic dimensions of L2 speech are associated with accent and which are linked to comprehensibility. This study explored this question in L2 French. The specific goal was to determine to what extent the pronunciation, fluency, lexis, and grammar dimensions of speech might be associated with L2 French speakers' accentedness (global measure of nativelikeness) and which might be uniquely linked to their comprehensibility (global measure of understanding) across two tasks (a picture narrative and an interview) for listeners who had and did not have prior experience with speakers' L1.

Review of Literature

Linguistic Correlates of Accentedness and Comprehensibility

Research has shown that even in the presence of a strong accent, L2 utterances can still be fully understood (e.g., Derwing & Munro, 2015). However, what is less obvious is whether accentedness and comprehensibility can be distinguished at the level of the linguistic dimensions underlying each construct. For instance, various measures of pronunciation and fluency have been linked to the comprehensibility and intelligibility of L2 speech, including stress (Field, 2005), speech rate (Munro & Derwing, 2001), pitch range and pausing (Kang, Rubin, & Pickering, 2010), and poor grammar and inappropriate lexical choice (Fayer & Krasinski, 1987). Many linguistic dimensions have also been associated with L2 accentedness, including segmental accuracy (Derwing, Munro, & Wiebe, 1998), articulation rate (Baker & Trofimovich, 2006), pitch range, stress, and pausing (Kang, 2010). Trofimovich and Isaacs (2012) investigated 19 linguistic measures grouped under the categories of phonology, fluency, lexis, grammar, and discourse in an attempt to distinguish the linguistic correlates of comprehensibility and accentedness. …

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