Proof that Scots are misunderstood

In Glasgow, they understand the glottal stop perfectly but study suggests young Londoners need more exposure to other accents

If you say "the boy was frightened of the bear" with a broad Glaswegian accent, London children may think the youth was quailing before a drink.

And they may hear "mouse" as something you put on your hair and "shut" as a rude word.

But say "the mother put the shopping in the boot" in a broad London accent to a group of Glaswegian children and they will have no difficulty in understanding. TV shows such as EastEnders have made the glottal stops and "nuffinks" of the hardened Londoner familiar to children in other parts of the UK.

Research at University College London, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, has found that, although young children are better than adults at learning accents, they will struggle with words in an unfamiliar accent - especially if they have speech problems.

The researchers - Liz Nathan, honorary research fellow at UCL's department of human communication science), and Bill Wells (now at Sheffield University) asked young children from London to listen to words recorded by speakers from London andGlasgow.

The children, all born and bred in the capital, found it more difficult to understand the Glaswegian accent, although seven-year-olds found it easier than four-year-olds.

A second experiment, where the words were repeated in the context of a sentence, improved their understanding but did not completely overcome their difficulties. Some children still persisted in hearing "bear" as "beer", for instance, even though a boy was unlikely to be frightened of a beer.

Children's exposure to a particular accent is also crucial, say the researchers. That is why the Glaswegian children had no difficulty in understanding a London accent in a parallel experiment, conducted by UCL students Lindsay Moore and Anna Volkmer.

Television makes Glaswegian children familiar with London accents. Many programmes that they watch, such as EastEnders, feature people speaking with southern English accents. In contrast, London children watch few Scottish programmes.

In two separate studies, Nathan and Wells have found that children with speech problems - who can find it difficult to discern fine distinctions in speech - perform less well in these kinds of experiments.

They suggest that children's ability to understand other accents could be improved by the systematic use of listening material presented in different accents in the classroom.

bill.wells@sheffield.ac.uk

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