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2015 Abstracts

International Teaching Assistant Accent Adaptation Study

Savannè Bohnet, University of Utah


The University of Utah attracts students from all over the world. Many international students serve as graduate teaching assistants, and in doing so, contribute to the teaching mission of the University. International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) experience a number of challenges associated with their teaching duties, most noticeably communication difficulties that are typically attributed to their non-native accents. In recent studies on accent adaptation we have seen that native English speakers are in fact able to quickly and accurately adapt to unfamiliar or new accents; however, most of these studies have been conducted in highly- controlled laboratory contexts. In the present work, we have examined the ability of actual University of Utah undergraduate students to adapt to the speech of actual ITAs, with the goal of understanding how to harness this accent adaptation ability to improve communication and learning in the classroom. As a starting point in achieving this long-term goal, we are investigating how individual students vary with respect to this adaptation ability. We conducted an experiment where native English-speaking University of Utah students were asked to listen to recordings of ITAs producing running speech during an adaptation phase. Following the adaptation phase, these students were asked to perform a transcription task with individual words produced by the same ITAs. More accurate performance on the transcription task is interpreted as greater adaptation to the ITAs’ speech. We found not only that different ITAs exhibited different levels of intelligibility to students, but also that individual students varied widely in their adaptation ability, which means that the intelligibility of non-native speech depends on characteristics of the listener.