skip to content

Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme


  Stephanie Cooper,

  New Zealand

  Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, Jesus College

  PhD thesis: Foreign accent comprehension across languages and contexts.

  Research interests:
  1. Psycholinguistics.
  2. Cognitive psychology.
                                3. Accent comprehension.
                                4. Perceptual adaptation.

In the early stages of speaking to someone with a different accent to our own, we can find ourselves struggling to understand what they are saying. However, after a few minutes of conversation, comprehension is easier. Our brains undergo this adaptation process by identifying words based on context, and then broadening our internal categories of sounds to encompass the variation we hear.

I will explore how this adaptation process occurs across different languages with different numbers of vowels. I will also be looking at whether extensive exposure to a foreign accent means that people have separate paths to perceive their own and the other accent, without needing to go through an adaptation process each time. 

As our world becomes increasingly globalised, we interact more and more regularly with people from different language backgrounds. Understanding how we process these initial conversations may reveal ways to improve communication. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue your research interests?
My background is in cognitive psychology, and my main interest in this field has always been language processing. When I moved to the UK to pursue an MSc in Language Acquisition and Development at Bangor University, I was amazed that every person I met thought my name was “Stiff”, due to my New Zealand accent. I then took a course in Speech Science and learned how vowels shift in the phonetic space between accents.
For my dissertation with Dr Sarah Cooper, I researched how we deal with variation in speech, by examining New Zealand-accented people listening to a Greek accent (where words like ship can often sound more like sheep). I found that New Zealanders were surprisingly good at understanding this accent, which I suggested may be due to extensive exposure to the similar sounds in Australian accents. I look forward to exploring theories like this in my current project.