James Madison University

What Did You Say?!        

Research Lab Studying Impact of Foreign Accent on Recognition and Memory

By Brady Dailey (’16)
Posted: December 17, 2015

JMU students

As a student, it may cause alarm when encountering professors with accents.  In such instances students generally attribute difficulties and failures in the class to their inability to understand the professor.  Dr. Chan’s researches related topic in her Cognition and Psycholinguistics Lab.  As a non-native speaker herself, Dr. Chan’s research comes out of her own desire to better teach her students.  In this effort she has recently completed a series of studies investigating the effects of a foreign accent on speech recognition and memory.

These experiments were conducted by presenting students with lists of words and asking the participants to recall each word in order.  The results of this study showed that memory was significantly worse when the lists were presented in a foreign accent as compared to a native accent (Chan, Campbell, & Zurlo, 2014).  When spoken with a foreign accent, words were more likely to be misidentified and therefore recalled incorrectly as the misperceived words. Accented words were also more likely to be mis-ordered during recall (Chan, Dailey, & Jalil, 2015).  The increased difficulty in identifying accented words is partly due to the fact that our brain is still processing earlier words when later words are being presented.  This reduces the mental resources that can be allocated to the subsequent words.

Additionally, these experiments explored ways in which these negative effects could be diminished (Chan, Dailey, & Jalil, 2015).  The first being a simultaneous visual display of the word, as would be presented in a Power Point slide in a class.  Although this did not completely fix the problem it did have some positive effects.  Finally, providing a longer duration between words during presentation also improved performance.  Increasing the amount of time between words gives the listener’s brain more time to process each word clearing the back up. 

Findings from these experiments can have important implications in real life scenarios. For example, foreign-accented teachers who may want to help the students better understand them may consider using extra visual displays and taking time to deliver their speech.

What past students have to say:

“Working in Vivien’s lab was an amazing hands on experience.  We get collaborated in everything from research design to presentation!” --Daroon Jahlil

“The research is really interesting and Vivien is a great supervisor.” --Catherine Mathers

f you are interested in applying to work in the Cognitions and Psycholinguistics lab view more information and a downloadable application form.


Chan, K. Y., Campbell K. T., Zurlo, N. H. (2014). Effect of foreign accent on memory for words in auditory and bimodal serial recall tasks. Poster presentation at the 55th Annual Meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Long Beach, CA.

Chan, K. Y., Dailey, B. A., Jalil, D. (2015). Studying the effect of foreign accent on serial recall through error analysis. Poster presented at the 14th annual convention of the Auditory Perception, Cognition, and Action, Chicago, IL.