Comprehensibility and Intelligibility of International Student Speech

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).

Context

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?

Methodology

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.

Results

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.

Take homes

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.

Reference

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

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Stephen Bruce
Pre-Masters Course Leader at Dublin International Foundation College
Stephen works as an EAP tutor in Ireland for Dublin International Foundation College. He is a member of ELT Ireland and blogs at eaping.blogspot.com and tweets @EAPSteve.

2 thoughts on “Comprehensibility and Intelligibility of International Student Speech”

  1. Interesting, although I’d suggest that negative perceptions of international students’ communicative abilities don’t just come down to straightforward intelligibility. Having been a student on an MA course myself over the past year, I’ve particularly noticed the impact of the international students on my course (making up about 30% of the group in most classes). Most of them had what I’d say was a pretty high level of English (definitely IELTS 7+), but even so, I noticed that their contributions could often disrupt the flow of discussions because they were slow, long-winded, a bit off the point or repeated what had already been said – not sure whether that was down to their linguistic abilities or cultural factors, or quite probably a mix of both. They often required extra patience on the part of both the lecturer and the rest of the group to follow their points and to try and link slightly off-topic comments into the overall discussion. Arguably, if we want an international mix in our university courses, then it’s up to us (as lecturers and domestic students) to show that extra bit of patience, but it can still be wearing and at times frustrating. As a self-funded student with limited contact time, I did sometimes find myself wanting to wind up a particularly slow and rambling contribution in order to get things back on track. I was also aware of the lecturers trying to balance the needs of the international students (patiently encouraging them to express their point or trying to draw out connections to left-field contributions) and at the same time, keep the discussion moving along … its definitely not always easy.

    1. Hi Julie,

      The text was focused on intelligibility only – I’m sure you’re right – there are many other aspects that could impact on communication and would be worth looking at. I think one of the problems that was suggested is that there seems to be a lack of clarity – a lack of a clear explanation of why a teacher thinks a student is (or is not) ready for academic study (in terms of their spoken communication). In writing, we have probably done a better job at clarifying objectives and problems and we tend to spend a lot more time on this in EAP courses. However, like you say, a big part of students’ communication is via in class discussion and as an EAP teacher myself, I don’t think this gets as much attention (and learning objectives/goals are probably not as fleshed out).

      As a slow, long-winded waffler myself you can probably guess the argument I would put forward 🙂 but I also wonder if age/confidence/perception of purpose of in class discussion are also factors?

      But I take your point – the article did seem to knock university profs a bit (or at least it did in my reading) which is a little unfair – as you rightly point out, many are doing a good job encouraging students and holding it altogether.

      Good luck with the MA!

      Thanks,
      Stephen

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