Pardon My French… But Why Can’t You Understand Me?

“Mom! They offer French here! I want to take French!”

These were some of the first words I told my mom after we moved from California to Georgia when I was in 8th grade. Finally, after all this time, I was going to be able to learn the language I’d always wanted. I’m part French!1433006447999

It’s part of my blood! I was going to learn the language of my people, until I told my mom   the grand plan.

“No Kayleigh, Spanish will be more practical in America, especially if you want to become a doctor.”

Well, there goes my dream of becoming fluent in the language of my people. And so, I proceeded to take Spanish, for 5 years. Hooray for proficiency!

Now that I’m in Paris, with little to no experience in speaking French. (Oh mom, why did you not let me learn?), I tend to think back on this time in my life. As I travel around the city, trying to learn new words and phrases, it becomes increasingly apparent that when I speak the little French I do know, nobody understands me. I would think, since I’m pronouncing the words just like the native Parisians, that they would understand me perfectly. Although, maybe it’s possible… could it be that I have an accent? Is my accent so thick that they cannot understand that when I say “poulet et fromage” I mean chicken and cheese? Now that I think about it, that’s probably why they proceed to giggle at my attempts at French and then start to speak to me in English.

I can’t blame them though. Going from your home country to a completely different place, with an entirely different language, causes some people to forget that when speaking another language, they too have an accent. Yet, it is so hard for native speakers of a language to comprehend non-native speakers, even when said non-native speaker has had practice in enunciating the accent.

A 2015 study done by Romero-Rivas et al. attempts to answer this question. “Processing changes when listening to foreign accented speech,” focused on two main issues about processing language from a non-native speaker: first, whether fast adaptation in the brain occur at the acoustic and/or lexical level during speech comprehension and whether semantic processing in the brain is affected after listeners have gotten better at comprehending foreign accented speech.


Accent Strength

Figure 1 from Romero-Rivas et al. 2015 showing rating on a scale of 1 to 5 of accent strength



So the set up for the experiment went a little something like this, the researchers recruited 20 native Spanish speakers (I guess my mom was right!), 12 women and 8 men, with the majority being from Catalonia, Spain. This was done so that the majority of them spoke in the same dialect. Each person had 208 sentences played to them from both native Spanish speakers, and non-native Spanish speakers. The non-native Spanish speakers were native speakers of Greek, Japanese, Italian and  French. Each sentence was repeated 4 times, a standard sentence spoken by a native Spanish speaker, a standard sentence spoken by a non-native Spanish speaker, a sentence with a semantic error spoken by a native Spanish speaker and a sentence with a semantic error spoken by a non-native speaker. This semantic error is a mix up in the meaning of the words in the sentence. These sentences were recorded by the non-native speakers and played back to the native Spanish speaking participants, at will and in a soundproof room (Romero-Rivas et al. 2015)

I guess this whole set up is kind of similar to my struggles here in Paris. I mean, I’m pretty sure I sometimes mix up some Spanish in my French, add some SIs when there should be some OUIs. Maybe say poulet Y fromage instead of poulet ET fromage. There are those semantic errors.

Grand average ERPs from EEg

Figure 2 from Romero-Rivas et al. 2015 showing EEG spiking

Anyway, neural recordings were taken by an electroencephalogram or EEG for short. Just imagine the spiking you see from a EKG on television. You know the one when the person is in the hospital and the machine is going *beep, beep* and the little spikes show the heart beating. Now imagine that same concept, but for the brain. They measured three types of spikes associated with neuronal language processing, P200, N400 and P600(Romero-Rivas et al. 2015). These recordings allowed for more in depth analysis of what was really going on when native speakers had to listen to foreign accents over a brief period of time.

After all of that testing, EEG reading and analyzing, the experimenters were finally able to come to certain conclusions about why French people can’t understand me when I speak! I mean why it’s harder to understand non-native speakers. The experimenters found that listeners do not improve at discerning phonetic/acoustic parts of foreign-accented speech after short term (25 minutes) exposure to it. However, information from native speaker’s internal lexicon (basically a dictionary for your brain), allows listeners to recognize and retune phonetic and acoustic variations into familiar vocabulary, making it possible for the listeners to improve at recognizing, retrieving and integrating the incoming foreign-accented speech. As for semantic violations, those were easier to process for native Spanish speakers as compared to non-native Spanish speakers. There is a type of reorganizer in the brain that adjusts for those violations from native speakers but not from non-native speakers (Romero-Rivas et al. 2015).

2015-06-08_23.23.28           Now it makes complete sense as to why when I go and order my Prince Street bagel sandwich with my exotique fruit smoothie, they don’t understand me. It’s harder for them to process the information that is coming out of my mouth because they are not exposed to English speakers often enough to process the accent fast enough. Not only that, but my accent is most likely thicker than those tested since I have little to no experience with French at all. Even when I say orange, which is exactly the same in English and in French (go ahead, look it up), the Parisians still don’t get it. To be fair, this is probably also due to the fact that I tend to speak in a Spanish accent when I speak foreign languages. It’s the only accent I know, so I can’t help it. I try French accents, but they just don’t come out right. I’m learning though, so that counts for something right? Maybe one day they will finally be able to understand my French.



Works Cited

Romero-Rivas C, Martin CD, Costa A. Processing changes when listening to foreign-accented     speech. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2015;9:167. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00167.

Map of Catalonia:          independence-vote/

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