How do L1 Chinese raters process the L2 Chinese speech signal at the sentence level with respect to accentedness, comprehensibility and intelligibility?
Set within the context of teaching and learning Chinese at two secondary schools in the North of England and adopting a case study research design, the aim of this study was to develop research-informed insights into the nature of the pronunciation challenges facing beginner learners of Chinese. Data collection activities included recording the spoken Chinese of 20 L2 learners during a read-aloud task and a question-answer activity. 40 L1 raters were subsequently interviewed as they rated and transcribed the learners’ randomised speech samples. Distinguishing between the key constructs of accentedness, comprehensibility and intelligibility, it was found that heavily accented tones did not necessarily lead to lower levels of comprehensibility and intelligibility. Furthermore, many intelligibility breakdowns – i.e. when raters failed to correctly transcribe the learners’ intended utterances - could be traced to problems with individual words which usually implicated segmental sounds as well as tone. Findings are interpreted in terms of indicating a need for more nuanced classroom priorities aimed at the promotion of intelligible speech as opposed to an unrealistic focus on developing a native-like accent.