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"Babies baffled by Australian vowel sounds"

Learning, Processing

Date: 12 December 2014

PM with Mark Colvin:

MARK COLVIN: The Australian accent, with its distinctive drawl and long vowels, can be tough to understand for people who've learned English as a second language in Britain or the US, for example.

Now a new study shows that Strine can even baffle Australian babies.

Researchers in Sydney introduced a set of similar sounding words to 15-month-old children.

They found the babies were more likely to understand the words in a Canadian accent.

Bridget Brennan reports.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: At 15-months-old babies' brains are like a sponge making sense of sounds and picking up new words. Typically infants are more able distinguish new words if they're spoken in their native language.

Researchers from the University of Western Sydney tested this theory.

PAOLA ESCUDERO: Many studies have shown that there is a bias towards a native language, so children are more, they like their native language more, they prefer it. We thought well, if that's the case, then Australian English babies should be able to learn words from Australian English much faster, much more easily, without trouble.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: But it seems Australian babies might not have a home-ground advantage.

Lead author of the study is Associate Professor Paola Escudero.

PAOLA ESCUDERO: What we did is we tried to see whether children had more difficulties if they heard words spoken in one accent as opposed to another accent in English.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: The researchers tested a new word on dozens of Australian babies at 15-months-old.

They taught the babies to recognise a made up word "deet". Then they tested if the babies noticed the word had been changed to "dit" or "doot".

When the babies listened to the Australian speaker they didn't notice the vowel changes. They made better sense of the different words listening to a Canadian.

Dr Karen Mulak is a research fellow at the MARCS Institute.

KAREN MULAK: So the reason why the Australian infants performed worse in the Australian accent is because those vowels are a lot more close together, they're a lot more similar in Australian English than they are in Canadian English.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: The main test was the vowel sounds.

KAREN MULAK: It depends on how far apart and how distinct the vowels are just overall, not necessarily what vowels they're used to every day in their language.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: Non-English-speaking migrants can find the Australian accent tricky to master.

Associate Professor Paola Escudero says Australian pronunciation of words like sheep, ship or shoot, can be misunderstood.

PAOLA ESCUDERO: So it's really interesting how we think of English as one big language but in fact, each individual accent may pose different challenges for different listeners and, you know, it poses sometimes a challenge for infants when they're learning their first language.

BRIDGET BRENNAN: The researchers will now test whether other infants at an older age are better able to understand the changing vowels. And they'll also test how easily Canadian babies can understand an Australian accent.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University