Speech intelligibility: a study of Iraqi EFL learners’ accented English

Younus, Majid Rasim (2020) Speech intelligibility: a study of Iraqi EFL learners’ accented English. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Intelligibility refers to a targeted pronunciation level in English which enables non-native English speakers to produce and understand English speech uttered by both native and non-native English speakers (Abercrombie, 1949; Gimson, 2001; Cruttenden, 2014; Munro and Derwing, 2006; Levis, 2016). Instead of pursuing perfect mastery of English pronunciation, most researchers recommend intelligibility as an achievable and practical pronunciation goal (Gimson, 2001; Quirk, 1990; Jenkins, 2000;James, 2014). Although intelligibility is currently the focus of pronunciation studies and classroom instructions, it has not been applied in the Iraqi EFL classrooms and pronunciation research (see Al- Juwari, 1997; Ahmed, 2000; Mahud, 1998; Rashid, 2009; Khudhair, 2015; AlAbdely and Thai, 2016; Al-Owaidi, 2017). The theoretical assumption of the study is that an intelligibility level of universal validity for EFL learners is best achieved when speech performance in English is based on a native English speakers’ pronunciation model, namely
Gimson’s (2001) Minimum General Intelligibility (MGI).

Applying a mixed methods approach, the present study investigates the productive and perceptive intelligibility of Iraqi EFL learners in relation to foreign accent and accent familiarity. Productive intelligibility refers to learners’ English speech being understood by others. This is determined by a production intelligibility test. By contrast, perceptive intelligibility refers to the ability of learners to understand native and non-native English speech. This is determined by a perception intelligibility test. The study measures the above two aspects of intelligibility, identifies which aspects of foreign accent and accent familiarity most negatively affect intelligibility and determines the various strategies these learners use to overcome intelligibility failure.

The overall quantitative analysis shows that Iraqi EFL learners are intelligible at the speech production and perception levels. However, these two aspects of intelligibility are negatively affected by the existence of segmental phonemes in English and Arabic that have no counterpart in the other language and by unfamiliarity with the speaker’s accent. The qualitative analysis identifies several segmental phonemic contrasts of a high functional load which are responsible for intelligibility failure and a list of strategies which the Iraqi EFL learners employ to overcome these failures.

Based on the above findings and the nature of the pronunciation problems involved, the study suggests an intelligibility approach to the teaching of pronunciation for Iraqi EFL classrooms. The study concludes with a description of the research implications and applications that derive from the findings of the study.

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