If you’ve been in the ELT game for a while, you’ve probably developed a pretty good ear for different accents, rhythms and stress patterns. As a result, you may have found that your perception of someone’s proficiency in English can differ from that of other people. This article summarizes a study by Sheppard et al. (2017), which took place in the US against the backdrop of increasing numbers of international students. The concern of the researchers seems to be that international students in US universities might be perceived differently by EAP teachers as compared to their subject teachers (e.g. a Biology lecturer or a History tutor).
The two groups investigated in this project are EAP teachers and Content faculty (i.e. content lecturers/tutors/professors – those who taught languages were excluded). In a sense, the job of the former group is to prepare students for communication with the latter. If there are different perceptions of student ability between these two groups, it can lead to problems. For instance, if a student is considered intelligible by an EAP teacher but less so by their subject lecturer then the student may not receive potentially useful help with their pronunciation.
Of course, this example presupposes that the problem is with the student. It could be that the lecturer or EAP teacher has a negative impression simply because they’ve not had exposure to many different forms of English. But more of that later.
The researchers distinguish between intelligibility (the ability to accurately hear/understand speech, often measured by way of transcription) and comprehensibility (the perception of how easy/difficult someone is to understand) for the basis of their research. As such, their project aims to offer both an objective and subjective examination of how the students’ speech is perceived.
The literature review presents a concise overview of research into the area of perceptions of intelligibility and comprehensibility. The results seem a little mixed – ELT/EAP teachers seem to be a bit better at transcribing L2 speakers speech but our perception of comprehensibility isn’t all that different from other people’s. In general, negative attitudes adversely affect our perception of comprehensibility but I wasn’t too clear on what exactly they meant by negative attitudes. Negative attitudes of the speakers’ accent? Their proficiency?
The researchers were looking to measure both comprehensibility and intelligibility. To measure comprehensibility, participants (24 content faculty; 20 EAP teachers) listened to 10 recorded extracts from student speech and were asked to rate them on a 9-point Likert scale according to how easy they were to understand. To measure intelligibility, the participants had to listen to 10 short extracts once and type what they heard. The participants were also asked to say whether they thought the students they listened to would be ready for university study. I found this quite a tidy methodology and helpful for anyone thinking of doing similar pronunciation based research.
In terms of comprehensibility, there was no significant difference between EAP teachers and Content faculty. The same was true for intelligibility – accuracy of transcription was on average 86%. The difference between the two groups came in the question about attitude. The Content faculty were quite divided – aside from the neutrals, there were 9 who expressed a negative perception of the students’ ability to study at university as opposed to 7 who were more positive (based on what they had heard in the transcripts as well as recalling their general experience teaching international students). The researchers also found a link between a negative perception and a lower rating of comprehensibility.
This study raises a couple of interesting questions. The content teachers were able to accurately transcribe what the students were saying after only one listen but at the same time, quite a few of them (about 38%) didn’t think the students ready for university study. The researchers take a bit of a swipe at lecturers on the basis of this disparity, suggesting that they could be allowing negative perceptions of comprehensibility to affect their judgement of student proficiency or perhaps overgeneralising from less proficient speakers.
There is an interesting subtext to this paper. The researchers in this paper quite rightly make the point that communication is a two way street. Just as we make students enrol in courses before they can join our universities, it might be no bad thing to also give academic staff a bit of training in international communication and attitudes to “non-native” speech.
SHEPPARD, B.E., ELLIOTT, N.C. and BAESE-BERK, M., 2017. Comprehensibility and intelligibility of international student speech: Comparing perceptions of university EAP instructors and content faculty. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 26, pp. 42-51. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com.lcproxy.shu.ac.uk/science/article/pii/S1475158517300061