The impact of dialect differences on spoken language comprehension

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Change citation format Byrd, A., Huang, Y., & Edwards, J. (2023). The impact of dialect differences on spoken language comprehension. Applied Psycholinguistics, 44(4), 610-633.


Research has suggested that children who speak African American English (AAE) have difficulty using features produced in Mainstream American English (MAE) but not AAE, to comprehend sentences in MAE. However, past studies mainly examined dialect features, such as verbal -s, that are produced as final consonants with shorter durations when produced in conversation which impacts their phonetic saliency. Therefore, it is unclear if previous results are due to the phonetic saliency of the feature or how AAE speakers process MAE dialect features more generally. This study evaluated if there were group differences in how AAE- and MAE-speaking children used the auxiliary verbs was and were, a dialect feature with increased phonetic saliency but produced differently between the dialects, to interpret sentences in MAE. Participants aged 6, 5–10, and 0 years, who spoke MAE or AAE, completed the DELV-ST, a vocabulary measure (PVT), and a sentence comprehension task. In the sentence comprehension task, participants heard sentences in MAE that had either unambiguous or ambiguous subjects. Sentences with ambiguous subjects were used to evaluate group differences in sentence comprehension. AAE-speaking children were less likely than MAE-speaking children to use the auxiliary verbs was and were to interpret sentences in MAE. Furthermore, dialect density was predictive of Black participant’s sensitivity to the auxiliary verb. This finding is consistent with how the auxiliary verb is produced between the two dialects: was is used to mark both singular and plural subjects in AAE, while MAE uses was for singular and were for plural subjects. This study demonstrated that even when the dialect feature is more phonetically salient, differences between how verb morphology is produced in AAE and MAE impact how AAE-speaking children comprehend MAE sentences.