Even if we learn a foreign language, familiarizing ourselves with the different dialects is still difficult. Therefore, to improve speech perception, Dutch researchers have the following suggestion.
In their study, boffins have shown how you can improve your second-language listening ability by watching movies with subtitles- but the subtitles have to be in the same language as the films.
Subtitles in one's native language, the default in some European countries, may actually be counter-productive to learning to understand foreign speech.
Holger Mitterer (Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics) and James McQueen (MPI and Radboud University Nijmegen) show that listeners can tune in to an unfamiliar regional accent in a foreign language.
Dutch students showed improvements in their ability to recognise Scottish or Australian English after only 25 minutes of exposure to video material. English subtitling during exposure enhanced this learning effect; Dutch subtitling reduced it.
In the study, Dutch students who were unfamiliar with Scottish and Australian English watched either an episode of the Australian sitcom Kath and Kim or a shortened version of Trainspotting, which depicts a Scottish drug addict, Renton, and his friends-with English subtitles, Dutch subtitles or no subtitles.
After this exposure, participants were asked to repeat back as many words as they could from 80 audio excerpts taken from each source spoken by the main characters, half of which had already been heard by the participants in the extracts and half were new to the participants.
The researchers found that English subtitles were associated with the best performance on both previously heard and new material but although Dutch subtitles also enhanced performance on the old items, they led to a worse performance on the new materials.
The participants seemed to be using the semantic (meaning-based) information in the Dutch subtitles when listening to the English speech and so the Dutch subtitles appear to have helped the participants to decipher which English words had been uttered, as seen in the improved recognition of previously heard materials.
This did not, however, allow participants to retune their phonetic categories so as to improve their understanding of new utterances from the same speaker.
Listeners can use their knowledge about how words normally sound to adjust the way they perceive speech that is spoken in an unfamiliar way. This seems to happen with subtitles too.
If an English word was spoken with a Scottish accent, English subtitles usually told the perceiver what that word was, and hence what its sounds were. This made it easier for the students to tune in to the accent.
On the other hand, the Dutch subtitles did not provide this teaching function, and, because they told the viewer what the characters in the film meant to say, the Dutch subtitles may have drawn the students' attention away from the unfamiliar speech.
The study has been published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.