Sunday 8 July 2012

Helping Asian students understand regional accents

Issue No:229

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have developed a computer program that helps Asian students improve their understanding of accented English speech in noisy environments.

The team of researchers from the schools of psychology, education, and English realised that some Asian students found it difficult to understand the range of different English accents spoken in Britain.

They identified that some of the students had particular difficulties with differentiating sounds at the end of English words (rope versus robe) and at the start (tin versus thin).

Such problems with spoken English can make continuous speech difficult to follow, given that misunderstanding just one word can potentially change the whole interpretation of a sentence. The difficulties are also magnified in non-optimal listening situations such as on a telephone or in places such as shopping centres where there can be a lot of ambient noise.

To tackle the problem, the researchers developed a computerised Spoken English Discrimination, or SED, training program. This can be used to train Chinese speakers in how to detect differences in speech sounds in adverse conditions, such as accented speech, or in situations where there are a number of other sounds in the background.

The research team secured development money for the project through the European funded Innovation Fellowship scheme and via Nottingham’s own Hermes Fellowship. The awards enabled the team to develop the product, assess the market demand and identify business collaboration opportunities.

The research team was led by Nicola Pitchford and Walter van Heuven from the school of psychology. Pitchford said the findings showed that SED training did have a significant impact in terms of enabling Asian students to differentiate between sounds.

“There has already been interest from government organisations through to a major Chinese mobile phone company, which is interested in developing it into an educational phone app,” Pitchford said.

“In China alone, over 300 million people are involved in learning and teaching English, so we are very excited about the programme’s potential.”

The university is also looking to integrate SED training into existing English language teaching schemes because it covers specific cultural elements, accents and different noisy backgrounds, issues that are normally not included in language courses.

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