Language and Linguistics Seminar Series: Week 21 with Dr Ella Jeffries, University of Essex

Children’s developing awareness of regional accents

  • Thu 21 Feb 19

    12:00 - 13:00

  • Colchester Campus


  • Event speaker

    Dr Ella Jeffries, University of Essex

  • Event type

    Lectures, talks and seminars
    Language and Linguistics Seminar Series

  • Event organiser

    Language and Linguistics, Department of

  • Contact details

    Victoria Mead

Following last term, we are continuing our series of events called 'Brown Bag Lunch Talks', where our very own lecturers bring their research to an audience!

This week we have Dr Ella Jeffries, taking the stage to discuss what she has been researching recently!

Bring your own lunch along, 12-1pm, 1N1.4.1: do not miss out!



Children’s developing awareness of regional accents

Adults can categorise speakers via variable properties of speech, e.g. inferring regional accent from a speaker’s segmental pronunciations. How and when such abilities emerge is poorly understood. Studies of infant word learning demonstrate that children learn to ignore superfluous accent variation in order to understand familiar words in an unfamiliar accent as they reach the age of around 18 months. The pertinent question for the current research is based on when and how children then interpret this variation as something socially meaningful in itself.

The present study takes a step towards understanding the process by which pre-school and primary school children learn to group speakers by the segmental variables that separate regional accents. Children from York participated in an accent grouping game. They were presented with a set of visual stimuli consisting of two cartoon character mothers and five ‘lost children’. Each character spoke a short sentence containing one vowel variable that distinguishes between different regional accents. The children’s task was to identify which children belonged to which mother, according to how they spoke. 

The results found that overall, the children scored above chance in the experiments. There were varying levels of performance in the task, dependent on the children’s age, their exposure to regional variation, as well as the similarity and familiarity of the accents and accent features themselves. Importantly, an age improvement was found between the 3 and 4-year-olds, a critical age for language learning and the development of sociolinguistic skills in general. The other main finding was that children with exposure to non-local varieties performed better overall.

These results are interpreted through a usage-based model of language acquisition in which experienced exemplars are stored on encounter and then later accessed in speech processing. The results from this study support previous findings that hearing multiple speakers helps create more robust phonological categories in language acquisition.


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