Young Glaswegians have no problems understanding Eastenders' accents, but the reverse is not true. London children have a hard time understanding strong Glasgow accents. As they get older, children adapt to and understand different accents, whether the speaker is from Glasgow, Gujarat or Guyana. But for younger children who are still learning their first language, a different and rarely heard accent hampers their ability to understand what is being said. The same can't be said of the ability of young Scots or others with heavy regional accents to understand cockney, since they are likely to be exposed to London and estuary accents continually on television, radio and in films.
In a study looking at the impact of accents on children's understanding, four and seven-year-old Londoners listening to a recording of a Glaswegian saying "the boy was frightened of the bear" repeatedly insisted that the object of the boy's fear was beer, although that was implausible in the context. Children with speech problems had even greater difficulties in understanding variations in accent.
In the multicultural Britain of today, teachers need to be aware of how children's comprehension could be affected by peers or teachers speaking in accents that differ from their own, especially at schools with a wide range of accents. But the good news is that exposure to different accents leads to the ability to understand them better. Teachers could accelerate the process by systematically using tapes featuring people with different accents.
Processing speech variability and How children with speech difficulties process an unfamiliar accent: the role of context by Bill Wells, University of Sheffield, and Liz Nathan, DFES. You can read the reports at: www.regard.ac.uk.E-mail: Bill.Wells@sheffield.ac.uk