Sep 252017
 

… writes MIT cognitive science professor Edward Gibson in Aeon:

Suppose you are at a cocktail party, and your conversation partner – someone with power in your field – wants to know your view about a potentially scandalous issue at your company. You don’t want to divulge what you know, but want the power player on your side. By speaking with a strong accent and using ungrammatical syntax, you can lead your listener to think that you are supporting a politic view while discouraging them from pressing you for more information, because people generally avoid asking a lot of questions of someone whose utterances are difficult to understand. If there is confusion over what you had meant, you can later say you meant to convey something else!

To test the idea that [non-native or second-language] speakers get the benefit of the doubt, my team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had people listen to poorly formed English sentences such as:

  1. The millionaire profited the tax reduction.
  2. The earthquake shattered from the house.

These sentences were spoken either in standard American English, or with a strong Israeli or Hindi accent. Note that each of these sentences is oddly constructed: either the grammar is wrong, or the speaker is saying something strange. In the first example, maybe the speaker meant ‘The millionaire profited from the tax reduction’ or ‘The tax reduction profited the millionaire’. In the second, maybe the speaker meant ‘The earthquake shattered the house’ or ‘The house was shattered from the earthquake’. Otherwise, they are saying that a house somehow destroyed an earthquake, which makes no sense.

After each sentence, we asked our participants to probe their interpretation of these strange sentences. The upshot: when sentences were spoken with an accent, listeners were more inclined to interpret them in the more plausible way, compared with when they were spoken in standard American English. When the sentences were spoken with no accent, listeners were more likely to interpret them literally and assume that the meaning was implausible.

We interpreted this result in terms of a noisy-channel model of language processing. …

Applying the noisy-channel idea to understanding L2 speakers, we can think of the errors in non-native English as a noisier language model than a native-speaker model. Listeners expect more errors and are therefore more likely to think that L2 speakers mean something sensible when they say something implausible. But if a native speaker says something nonsensical, listeners are more likely to take them literally, because they know their language model has less noise.

I absorbed Gibson’s piece with special interest today, having read this weekend, with much delight, discussion-forum posts written by my KPU students on the topic of miscommunication. Several posts brought a smile to my face. And one made me truly laugh out loud. In the latter a student describes an unnerving interaction between a Canadian Border Security officer and herself at the Vancouver airport. My student was congested and her hearing was muffled. When the officer asked to see her “boarding pass,” she thought he was asking “to see my ‘body parts’.” She had to stop herself from running away.

I will never hear either phrase without hearing its near-homonym again.