Is your speech hard for people to comprehend? Research tells us this could be affecting your career prospects

We’ve talked about the importance of intelligibility before.  Intelligibility is an objective measure of whether your speech is understood.  We all want to be intelligible and it is often a key goal for our clients.

But what about your comprehensibility? 

Your comprehensibility is how simple (or hard) it is for a native-listener to understand what you are saying.  In other words, how hard does a native English speaker have to focus on what you are saying to make sense of it?

You might be completely intelligible when friends or colleagues pay close attention to what you are saying.  But you might not be comprehensible to a job interviewer or shop assistant who doesn’t put in the effort to listen to you carefully.

We know that things like grammar, pronunciation, prosody and speaking rate can affect your comprehensibility.  We also know that, unfortunately, people’s prejudices – e.g. against a certain accent or dialect – can cause some people to mark down a person’s comprehensibility, even if they are (objectively) intelligible.

Why does this matter?

In a 2006 study, researchers found that a person’s ethnicity did not affect their employability if their accent was mild (see citation below).  This supports an earlier study that found people from a number of backgrounds can be effective communicators – even if they speak with a different speech style.

The study also showed that people with accents or dialects that required listeners to work hard to comprehend what they were saying were less likely to be employed than people who were easily comprehended.

Bottom line

The study was small (only 3 speakers) and limited in lots of ways (e.g. it had no control group).  But it suggests that speakers with an accent that makes it hard for others to comprehend them may benefit from accent modification therapy.  Ideally, therapy should focus on aspects of their accent that make it most difficult for other people to comprehend them.

Carlson, H.K., & McHenry, M.A. (2006). Effect of accent and dialect on employability. Journal of Employment Counseling, 43(2), 70-83.

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Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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