Could listening to a doctor with a foreign accent help patients remember instructions better?

Researchers are exploring how listening to someone with a foreign accent might make it easier to remember what was said due to added effort and concentration.

Generally speaking, if someone has a strong foreign accent it can be challenging to fully understand what they are saying. It at least takes a more concentrated effort.

You would think this might make it more difficult to remember what they’ve said, but it turns out that the added attention required might make retention more likely. For patients who see doctor’s with prominent accents, this could maybe be beneficial for things like remembering information from appointments or recommendations with medications.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are trying to figure out how the brain deals with foreign accents, hearing loss and other challenges when it comes to understanding what others are saying. They found that those with hearing loss had a harder time remembering lists of words they were told, likely because it took much more effort just to hear the words, let alone remember them.

But the same wasn’t true for hearing accented speech, despite the added effort, which surprised them.

Kristen Van Engen, a postdoctoral researcher in linguistics who led the study, told NPR that the brain deals with hearing loss and understanding accented speech differently. She presented the results Monday at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Pittsburgh.

“A foreign language is really different than a noisy native signal,” Van Engen said. “With an accent you have full access to the signal, but it doesn’t map onto your existing patterns.”

Van Engen and Jonathan Peelle, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies thinking and hearing loss, actually found in one experiment that listening to accented speech had clear benefits. People in the study remembered what they heard from a non-native speaker better.

“There might be some ways that working harder leads to better memory,” Van Engen said.

Perhaps patients could get some added value in retaining the guidance provided by a non-native speaking healthcare professional.

[Photo from Flickr user Melvin Gaal]