Intelligibility in Accent Management Intelligibility is a multifaceted phenomenon essential to assessment and outcome measurement in accent management. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief discussion of some of the factors involved in measurement and interpretation of intelligibility of nonnative speakers. Through review of a sampling of relevant studies in speech ... Article
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Article  |   March 10, 2017
Intelligibility in Accent Management
Author Affiliations & Notes
  • Alison Behrman
    Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences, Lehman College, Bronx, NY
  • Disclosures
    Disclosures ×
  • Financial: Alison Behrman has not relevant financial interests to disclose.
    Financial: Alison Behrman has not relevant financial interests to disclose.×
  • Nonfinancial: Alison Behrman has not relevant nonfinancial interests to disclose.
    Nonfinancial: Alison Behrman has not relevant nonfinancial interests to disclose.×
Article Information
Speech, Voice & Prosodic Disorders / Cultural & Linguistic Diversity / Part 1
Article   |   March 10, 2017
Intelligibility in Accent Management
Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, March 2017, Vol. 2, 3-8. doi:10.1044/persp2.SIG19.3
History: Accepted February 15, 2016 , Received February 1, 2017 , Revised February 15, 2017
Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, March 2017, Vol. 2, 3-8. doi:10.1044/persp2.SIG19.3
History: Accepted February 15, 2016; Received February 1, 2017; Revised February 15, 2017

Intelligibility is a multifaceted phenomenon essential to assessment and outcome measurement in accent management. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief discussion of some of the factors involved in measurement and interpretation of intelligibility of nonnative speakers. Through review of a sampling of relevant studies in speech production and perception, the complexity of intelligibility and its relationship to accentedness is explored.

A non-native accent is a communication difference characterized by phonetic and phonological features (the latter including syllable structure and prosodic characteristics) that differ systematically from those of native speakers. Such differences are generally derived from perceptual and production characteristics of the native language (L1) that are applied to the second language (L2: Best & Tyler, 2007; Flege, 1999). Accentedness, the listener's perception of how native-like a talker sounds (Munro & Derwing, 1999) is dependent upon numerous factors, including the language background of the listener, the listener's experience with nonnative accents, the listener's bias and personal preferences towards nonnative accents, the talker's L2 language proficiency and pronunciation skills, and the complexity of the spoken content (see, for example Levi, Winters, & Pisoni, 2007; Pickering, 2006; Piske, MacKay & Flege, 2001  for greater discussion of these factors).
In clinical practice, an underlying assumption of accent management is a relatively linear relationship between accentedness and intelligibility. Broadly defined, intelligibility describes how well a speaker is understood. The desire for increased intelligibility is among the most common factors that motivate clients to seek accent management. Furthermore, level of intelligibility is among the most basic outcome measures of intervention. Yet, the term is not used consistently among clinicians or researchers, and the relationship between accentedness and intelligibility is complex. Given its importance to research on the perception and production of nonnative speech and to clinical practice in accent management, discussion of some of the many issues surrounding intelligibility is warranted. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of indexes of intelligibility and a glimpse of some of the research on the relationship of intelligibility and accentedness.
Intelligibility—The Accuracy of Understanding
In its narrowest sense, intelligibility is the accuracy with which a listener understands a talker. It can be measured by transcribing a series of utterances and counting each word. Alternatively, the number of content words (nouns, verbs) and modifiers (adverbs and adjectives) transcribed correctly can be counted, with errors on function words (articles, conjunctions, and prepositions), misspellings, and homonym errors ignored.
In measurement of transcript accuracy, a ceiling effect can occur with high-intelligibility talkers. That is, in the optimal listening conditions frequently used in speech research, such as a quiet room with presentation of the listening stimuli through headphones, the talker may be completely intelligible. Thus, the intelligibility score may not accurately reflect real world communication, and any gain in intelligibility achieved due to intervention will be obscured. To prevent ceiling effects, the utterances are mixed with background noise (e.g., Bradlow & Bent, 2002; Ferguson, 2004; Lam & Tjaden, 2013). The type of noise may be broadband white noise (e.g., Smiljanić & Bradlow, 2005) or multi-speaker babble (6 or 12 speakers: e.g., Ferguson & Kewley-Port, 2002), with babble having a spectrum closer to that of speech. The spectral characteristics of noise can affect intelligibility, and, in the case of speaker babble, if the same babble segment is used for all stimuli, the potential exists for listener accommodation to the noise (Felty, Buchwald, & Pisoni, 2009). Furthermore, the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) or range of SNRs, must be selected (for example, 0 dB, -4 dB, or -6 dB). Often, the SNR is determined during pilot testing, in which listeners who are native language speakers achieve a range of mid-to-high (e.g., 50–70%) intelligibility scores (Rogers, DeMasi, & Krause, 2010).
Intelligibility—The Perception of Understanding
Intelligibility can also be measured using scaling tasks, in which the listener judges how much information is understood. The judgment might be made using an estimated percentage (e.g., 70% intelligible). Alternatively, a Likert-type, equal interval scale or a visual analog scale may be used. An equal interval scale might consist of 7 or 9 points, with 1 equal to completely intelligible and 7 or 9 equal to completely unintelligible. A visual analog scale could have the same end-anchors, but instead of being segmented into points, it consists of a line of given length (e.g., 10 cm), upon which the listener places a mark representing perception of intelligibility. The distance from the origin to the mark is then measured and yields the intelligibility score.
Comparison of the inter- and intra-rater reliabilities of transcription and scaling estimates of intelligibility has not been explored relative to nonnative accents. However, these analyses have been explored in dysarthria assessments. Those data suggest that while scores may not be directly comparable (Hustad, 2006; Stipancic, Tjaden, & Wilding, 2016), the two measures are similarly reliable (Tjaden, Kain, & Lam, 2014). As such, although accuracy of transcription may be considered a more objective measure of intelligibility (Miller, 2013), scaled measures of intelligibility estimates, which tend to be more time efficient, may be an acceptable alternative.
Other indexes of intelligibility are also used to characterize the effect of accentedness on communication. For example, a talker may be highly intelligible, but only if the listener concentrates fully (“listens hard”). In that case, the talker is intelligible but not easy to understand. Ease of understanding captures how hard a listener must work to understand the talker. It is commonly measured with an equal-interval or visual analog scale, with end-anchors such as very easy to understand and very difficult to understand. Munro and Derwing (1999)  (and the large body of research on accentedness by these authors and their colleagues) use the term comprehensibility to refer to ease of understanding. However, the use of comprehension questions (Anderson-Hsieh & Koehler, 1988) is yet another index of intelligibility, and thus, potential for confusion arises with the term comprehensibility. For that reason, ease of understanding is recommended in place of the term comprehensibility.
The Influence of Language Background and Perceptual Adaptation on Intelligibility
Many factors have the potential to influence any index of intelligibility. Two factors that are particularly complex are the language background of the listeners and the potential for perceptual adaptation.
Research data suggest that the language background of the listener can influence intelligibility scores, although the relationship is complex. In the case of English, for example, native English-speaking listeners may rate L2 talkers of English as more intelligible compared to listeners who are nonnative speakers of English, particularly within noise (Munro & Derwing, 1999). Furthermore, intervention strategies for L2 talkers, such as clear speech, may yield a larger increase in intelligibility as perceived by native compared to nonnative listeners (Bradlow & Bent, 2002). Additionally, L2 listeners of the same native language background as the L2 talkers may achieve higher intelligibility scores than when the native languages are different (Smiljanić & Bradlow, 2007).
In contrast, Munro, Derwing, and Morton (2006)  found that listeners from four different L1 backgrounds had moderately to moderately to highly correlated intelligibility assessments (using transcription and rating scales) of L2 talkers. They also found little difference in intelligibility scores between native and nonnative listeners. One reason for the variable data may be that the language itself may affect a possible listener-talker language benefit. Major, Fitzmaurice, Bunta, and Balasubramanian (2002)  showed that, when listening to Spanish-accented speech, L1 Spanish speakers found the talkers more intelligible than talkers from other language backgrounds. In contrast, L1 Japanese and Chinese speakers did not find Japanese- or Chinese-accented speech, respectively, more intelligible than talkers from other L1 languages.
Language proficiency of the talkers may be another factor mediating the effect of speaker-listener language match. Bent and Bradlow (2003)  found that, for nonnative listeners, high-proficiency (but not low-proficiency) L2 talkers from both the same and different L1 backgrounds were as intelligible as native talkers. As Hazan and Markham (2004)  note, the acoustic-phonetic characteristics of the speech signal may be of equal or greater importance to intelligibility than listener language background.
The phenomenon of perceptual adaptation (Major et al., 2002; Pickering, 2006) may be another factor in the effect of listener language on intelligibility. That is, listeners can adapt to nonnative speech, resulting in greater intelligibility (Bradlow & Bent, 2008; Clarke & Garrett, 2004). The conditions of the exposure, however, are important to consider. For example, intelligibility scores can increase when listeners hear multiple exemplars from a speaker (Burda, Overhake, & Thompson, 2005), or when native English listeners are familiar with the L1 of the speaker (Kennedy & Trofimovich, 2008). In contrast, whereas exposure to many speakers of a given L1 may increase intelligibility of a novel speaker from the same L1, such exposure may not increase intelligibility of a speaker from a different L1 (Bradlow & Bent, 2008). However, Baese-Berk, Bradlow, and Wright (2013)  showed that adaptation to L2 speech may generalize to a novel language after systematic exposure to many talkers with a variety of nonnative accents. The authors hypothesized that wide exposure to a variety of nonnative accents of a given language allows listeners to perceive systematic differences, which can then be generalized to novel talkers. As noted by Munro et al. (2006), intelligibility is no more valid when judged by native listeners compared to L2 listeners.
In summary, the influences of language background of the listener and perceptual adaptation mean that a given speaker's intelligibility may be judged differently from one context to the next. Thus, intelligibility is a measure of both the talker and the listener.
The Influence of Speaking Task and Linguistic Content on Intelligibility
The speech stimulus itself may influence intelligibility. Single words may have greater intelligibility than phrases, in part, perhaps, because the listener does not need to make decisions about word boundaries. Additionally, read speech may yield different intelligibility scores than extemporaneous speech. In assessment of intelligibility in monolingual speakers with Parkinson's disease, Tjaden and Wilding (2011)  found that scores based upon transcription and perceptual scaling (direct magnitude estimation) for phrases extracted from a reading passage were not significantly different from scores obtained from phrases extracted from extemporaneous speech. However, in that study, language proficiency of the monolingual talkers was not a factor. In assessment of intelligibility of L2 talkers, it is possible that lexical and syntactic errors would be more common in extemporaneous speech than in read speech. Although listeners can be instructed to ignore lexical and syntactic errors in judgments of intelligibility, such errors, even from proficient L2 talkers, can easily negatively affect intelligibility scores.
Speech-language pathologists have long recognized that when the listener is aware of the context (“known context”), intelligibility may be greater than in unknown contexts. In addition, the semantic context may influence intelligibility. Semantically anomalous sentences, which are grammatically correct but meaningless (“They salted the large building with bricks”), are less intelligible than meaningful but unpredictable sentences (“Jane quickly throws a pink ball”), while predictable sentences are the most intelligible (Behrman & Akhund, 2013; Gass & Varonis, 1984; Kennedy & Trofimovich, 2008).
The Relationship Between Accentedness and Indexes of Intelligibility
Intelligibility does not always correlate strongly with accentedness (Munro & Derwing, 1999; Smiljanić & Bradlow, 2011). A person may be perceived as having a nonnative accent yet still be completely intelligible, although listeners may perceive themselves as having to work harder to understand the speaker (Behrman & Akhund, 2013; Kennedy & Trofimovich, 2008; Munro & Derwing, 1999).
Furthermore, accent management may improve intelligibility without changing accentedness. Smiljanić and Bradlow (2011)  found that, even for nonnative speakers who achieved statistically significant improvement in intelligibility scores with use of clear speech (hyperarticulation), accentedness ratings remained largely unchanged when compared to habitual speech. Similarly, Behrman (2017)  found improved ease of understanding for all six participants in a single case experimental design of clear speech for Spanish-accented speakers of English, but inconsistent change in accentedness scores. In contrast, Behrman (2014)  found that a combination of segmental and prosodic training for native Hindi speakers talking in English resulted in lesser accentedness and increased ease of understanding for all four speakers in a single case experimental design. It appears that, for speakers on the extreme low end of the accentedness spectrum—very mild accent—scores on indexes of intelligibility are relatively predictable. That is, talkers with very mild accents are also very easy to understand and are highly intelligible. However, for talkers with moderate or moderate-strong accents, indexes of intelligibility are not as well predicted.
Implications for Clinical Practice
In summary, intelligibility is a multidimensional phenomenon influenced by factors related to the speaker, the listener, and measurement methodology. Furthermore, intelligibility and accentedness are not synonymous. What are the clinical implications of these statements? Most clients present to me with the chief complaint that they speak English poorly and they want to improve their pronunciation so that they are better understood in an English-dominant work environment. Although the client is focused upon sounding “less foreign,” increased intelligibility may be a more effective therapy target than decreased accentedness. Taken from that perspective, parallels exist between clinical decision-making in accent management and treatment of motor speech disorders: The speech-language pathologist must recognize that the client's intelligibility is a fluid phenomenon that varies with listener and context, and the clinician must identify the factors that contribute most to the client's decreased intelligibility.
Regarding measurement of intelligibility pre- and post-intervention, it is recommended that more than one dimension of intelligibility is measured (for example, percent overall intelligibility and ease of understanding), ideally by more than one individual: for example, the clinician and a significant person in the client's environment, such as a co-worker. Documentation of the method of measurement should be made, and consistency in methodology within and across clients should be followed.
Over the past few decades, research into speech production and perception of L2 speakers has contributed to increased understanding of how we measure and interpret intelligibility, and its role in clinical decision-making. Ongoing research into these many areas touched upon in this article will continue to better inform clinical practice.
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