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Europe’s first speech lab for non-native English speakers opens in Bristol

Press release issued: 5 November 2014

The first speech lab of its kind in Europe, designed to break down communication barriers faced by those who speak English as a second language, is being launched in Bristol today [5 November].

In a linguistically diverse society, with many people speaking English as their second language, researchers at the University of Bristol are pioneering a new approach to help understand how factors such as accent influence communication.

The EU-funded speech lab uses state-of-the-art audio technology to capture and analyse second language speech samples, and to train people to assess the speech in a purpose-built environment.

Insights will then be used to train those who speak English as a second language and also to improve the teaching of English by targeting the elements of speech most likely to achieve successful communication.

Dr Talia Isaacs, Director of the Second Language Speech Lab, conducts research at the lab as part of a research program with international collaborators to identify the aspects of speech that are most important for engaging in effective communication when English is not the speaker’s primary language.

She said: “Reducing language barriers is a pressing social and educational challenge, especially in countries like the UK where the linguistic palette is very rich.

“Improving oral communication skills for non-native English speakers will help with many aspects of everyday life – from success in the workplace and in education to improving social integration and accessing vital services.

“Although accents are very noticeable to listeners and may lead to social stereotyping, someone who sounds different is not necessarily communicating ineffectively. In fact, a whole host of factors, such as pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, contribute to the successful transmission of a message. So we often need to listen beyond the accent.

“Research conducted at the lab will enable us to study the linguistic factors that contribute to breakdowns in communication in greater depth and identify ways to mitigate these.”

For example, future research could collect data from GP consultations, where either the doctor or the patient is speaking in their second language. Insights could help to ensure such communication is conducted with greater clarity.

Or, there could be instances where engineers from various countries are collaborating on a joint project and there’s a need to ensure that everyone fully understands one another and can effectively communicate their findings.

The Second Language Speech Lab is funded by the European Commission through a four-year €100,000 Marie Curie grant awarded to Dr Isaacs and the Graduate School of Education at Bristol University.

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