Whether you’re in the New York City subway, at the gym, or at the doctor’s office, you’re likely to hear people speaking in a different language, or with a foreign accent. You might even be a bilingual speaker yourself.

But how does hearing diverse languages affect language comprehension and processing?

In her new research, “Foreign-accented Speaker Identity Affects Neural Correlates of Language Comprehension” published in the May 2017 Journal of Neurolinguistics, Sarah Grey, Ph.D., found that a listener’s ability to identify foreign-accented speech affects their brain’s grammatical and semantic processing.

“In our daily lives, we’re interacting with people who are potential non-native speakers of a language, but we don’t have a lot of knowledge about how native speakers are processing what they hear,” said Grey, an assistant professor of linguistics and Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.

The study that Grey conducted with Janet G. Van Hell, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and linguistics at Pennsylvania State University, examined the brain activity of 29 monolingual native English-speaking college students living in central Pennsylvania, where English is mostly spoken. None of the participants were currently studying a foreign language and all of them reported limited experience hearing foreign-accented speech.

In the study, participants were told that they were going to be hearing two people talk about their friends’ lives. The task was to listen to sentences related to their discussion. They were not told that the sentences were going to be spoken by a native English speaker and a non-native Chinese-accented speaker, and there was no prior mention of foreign accents, grammar, or semantics.

Some of the pre-recorded declarative sentences, which were delivered by two female speakers, were grammatically and semantically correct. However, other sentences had a grammatical error in English subject pronouns (“Thomas was planning to attend the meeting, but she missed the bus to the school”) or a semantic error (“Kaitlyn traveled across the ocean in a cactus to attend the conference.”)

The researchers examined how the participants processed native and foreign-accented sentences through two methods: First, the neurocognitive technique of event-related potentials (ERPs), which are acquired with electroencephalogram, or EEG data. This allowed them to measure the electrical activity of the brain as listeners were processing the sentences they heard.

“One of the advantages of EEG is that you’re getting a closer look at brain processing in real time,” said Grey. “That’s a very fine level of detail that we don’t always get when we’re looking exclusively at behavioral data.”

Secondly, researchers measured sentence comprehension, language attitudes, and accent perception among the 29 listeners being tested.

The results from Grey’s study showed that being able to recognize foreign-accented speech seems to affect not only semantic processing, but also aspects of processing grammar. Both groups of listeners showed reduced semantic processing of foreign-accented speech compared to native-accented speech. However, for processing the grammar, the patterns of the two groups of listeners differed, she said.

“Listeners who could successfully identify foreign-accented speech had more active brain responses during grammar processing than the listeners who couldn’t identify the accent,” said Grey.

 A global reality

As the United States continues to grow as a culture where many different languages are spoken and heard, Grey said her research on language comprehension is providing a deeper understanding of how bilinguals and monolinguals process the language around them.  According to Grey, these changes are also reflective of a global reality.

She said she doesn’t have to look much further than the Bronx to see the impacts of multilingualism. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, 60.1 percent of Bronx residents speak a language other than English.

“Fordham is located in a linguistically rich area, which is incredibly attractive [for my research],” she said.

Most recently, Grey set up an EEG laboratory for Language and Multilingualism Research at the Rose Hill campus to conduct more experiments on language learning and comprehension— with the first set of data collection planned for later this year.

“We’d like to continue to look at language processing in groups of bilinguals to see if their own statuses as bilingual speakers also impact their brain responses,” she said.

Challenging misconceptions

Through her research on language processing, Grey hopes to also challenge misconceptions about foreign-accented speech.

“Oftentimes hearing foreign accentedness, or even dialectic accentedness, brings up a preconceived set of biases,” she said. “People often assume that the person may not be a high proficiency speaker of the language, may be brand new to a language, or that they may have ideological differences.”

Grey’s own experiences learning Spanish as a native English-speaking high school student, and later at the undergraduate level, provided her with a well-rounded perspective on language learning and comprehension, she said.

“It was through my own foreign language experience that I got interested in the more technical aspects of language study related to linguistics,” she said. “And I just followed that to where I’m at now.”

Grey plans to use Fordham’s EEG laboratory for Language and Multilingualism Research as a gateway for students to learn how multilingualism is transforming not only the world, but the Bronx community in which the Rose Hill campus is based.

“Most people around the world are bilingual or multilingual, or live in a context where bilingualism and multiculturalism are a daily reality,” she said.

“[The lab] gives students a different view of language learning and comprehension because we’re using neuroscience methods to examine foreign language learning and bilingual language processing. That’s kind of a novel way to think about [the study of]modern languages.”