Perception or Prejudice? Accents and Their Influence

An exploration of accents and how they influence our perceptions of people.

The way in which we speak can influence how others perceive us as they convey information about our identities, emotions, intentions, and thoughts (Kozlowski, 2015). How someone says something can have a larger influence on the listener than what the speaker has actually said (Eisenchlas & Tsurutani, 2011; Kozlowski, 2015). Accents identify a speaker’s national, ethnic or socioeconomic group; therefore, they are one of the strongest non-verbal cues of information for listeners (Eisenchlas & Tsurutani, 2011). Since accents communicate this important information, they can also inform a perception of the speaker usually linked to stereotypical characteristics or prejudices of the accent (Eisenchlas & Tsurutani, 2011; Neuliep & Speten-Hansen, 2013). Listeners can experience the all-sound alike or other-accent effect when listening to speakers with unfamiliar accents, which affects their ability to differentiate between accents (Stevenage, Clarke, & McNeill, 2012). Many factors affect how and why accents influence our perceptions of people, such as the other-accent effect, stereotypes associated with accents, credibility of accented speakers, and the consequences these can have on people with accents affect them daily.

People often prefer their own accents and can find it difficult to distinguish between unfamiliar accents (Stevenage et. al., 2012; Kozlowski, 2015). For example, Stevenage et. al. (2012) found Australian listeners were more accurate at recognising speech when the speaker had an Australian accent, compared to when they had an unfamiliar English accent, even when the words spoken are the same. This other-accent effect means listeners can more accurately identify familiar accents, and show more confidence in their judgements when the speakers’ accent is familiar, compared to when their accent is unfamiliar (Stevenage et. al, 2012). However, a listener’s reaction to accents depends on the listener’s linguistic background (Bestelmeyer, Belin, & Ladd, 2015). Accents can originally inhibit linguistic processing in listeners, yet further experience with accents develops listener’s linguistic processing skills quickly (Cristia, Seidl, Vaughn, Schmale, Bradlow, & Floccia, 2012). Due to this, the other-accent effect only applies to accents that are unfamiliar to the listener. Dialects can also produce effects similar to the other-accent effects, although they are reduced in these circumstances, dialects still cause word recognition to take longer and word intelligibility is impaired (Stevenage et al., 2012). The own-accent bias influences the other-accent effect, and is where individuals prefer their own accent (Kozlowski, 2015). A possible explanation for this preference for similar accents is that listeners are forming emotional connections between the accent and the perceived positive personality traits associated with the familiar accent (Bestelmeyer et. al, 2015; Kozlowski, 2015). For young children in particular, the accents of speakers are stronger discriminatory cues than the speaker’s race or appearance (Kinzler, Shutts, Dejesus, & Spelke, 2009; Kozlowski, 2015).  The ‘own-accent bias’ and the ‘other accent effect’ both affect how people perceive accented speakers (Kozlowski, 2015), and can cause negative perceptions of the speaker’s credibility based on their accented speech (Lev Ari & Keysar, 2010).

Non-native speakers sound less credible due to their unfamiliar accents (Lev Ari & Keysar, 2010). Non-native speakers are speakers who have learnt a language as a child or adult, rather than as an infant. Non-native speakers are difficult to understand when compared to native speakers, which can cause non-native speakers to sound less credible (Lev Ari & Keysar, 2010; Kozlowski, 2015). Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010), found native listeners are quick to use accents as a signal that the speaker is an out-group member, leading to stereotypes and prejudices influencing the credibility of the non-native speaker. However, Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010) state this impact on credibility is based on the difficulty listeners have in processing information, not solely on prejudices associated with the speaker’s accent. Listeners believe non-native speakers sound less credible due to the difficulty they have in processing information from the non-native speakers (Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010). Based on this information, accents could affect credibility of non-native speakers when reporting news or providing eyewitness testimonies (Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010). Frumkin (2007) found that accented eyewitnesses are typically perceived as less credible compared to eyewitnesses with no accent, supporting Lev-Ari and Keysar’s (2010) research. Societies around the world are becoming increasingly multicultural, both socially and economically, therefore, it is important for listeners to be aware of the impact accents can have on perceived credibility. Lev-Ari and Keysar (2010) found that when listeners are aware that their difficulty in processing accented speech affects their ability to judge credibility, they manage to avoid misattributing the two. However, they typically only succeeded in altering their judgements when the speakers had mild accents, as when the speakers had a heavy accent they were unable to undo their judgement (Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010). Millions of people are non-native speakers of the language they use (Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010) and the negative stereotypes of their accents can affect accented speakers daily (Neuliep & Speten-Hansen, 2013).

Accents can evoke negative judgements and stereotypes based on the social information associated with their accent (Neuliep & Speten-Hansen, 2013). Attitudes towards non-native speakers are often negative (Gluszek & Dovido, 2010; Kozlowski, 2015). Speakers with non-native accents are not only perceived as less credible, but can also be perceived as less intelligent, less loyal, less competent, and of lower status (Neuliep & Speten-Hansen, 2013). Some of these prejudices are based on particular cultural groups, but listeners do not need to accurately identify the ethnic or national origin of an accent to make similar judgements (Neuliep & Speten-Hansen, 2013; Giles, Williams, Mackei, & Rosselli, 1995). Ethnocentrism defines when someone places their own ethnic group or culture above all others, and they view other groups or cultures from the perspective of their own culture. Neuliep and Speten-Hansen (2013) found that ethnocentrism plays a large role in the negative perceptions of non-native accented speakers. Specifically, they found that as one’s degree of ethnocentrism increased, their perceptions of non-native accented speaker’s attractiveness, credibility and education decreased. People with non-native accents often experience discrimination when applying for housing or employment, due to these negative characteristics native speakers associate with their accents (Gluszek & Dovidio, 2010; Neuliep & Speten-Hansen, 2013). People often perceive non-native speakers to be of lower socioeconomic status and that they have less successful jobs, such as fast food or janitorial work (Kozlowski, 2015). In contrast, people perceive native accent speakers to be more successful and have higher-level jobs, such as legal work (Kozlowski, 2015; Gill, 1994). Unfortunately, people with non-native accents are often assigned low-status positions when compared to native accented employees, as the native accented employees are perceived as more suitable for high status positions (Gluszek & Dovidio, 2010; Kozlowski, 2015). However, non-native accents are not always perceived negatively, when the non-native accent is familiar or holds positive sociopolitical factors to the listener (Lindemann, 2005; Neuliep & Speten-Hansen, 2013). These negative characteristics affect not just job opportunities, but can also affect non-native speakers during employment.

Assumed perceptions of accents often lead to discrimination and can seriously affect non-native English speakers throughout employment (Lev-Ari, & Keysar, 2010; Kozlowski, 2015). Non-native accented speakers are often perceived as lazy, incompetent, and uneducated by native speakers (Gluszek & Dovido, 2010; Kozlowski, 2015). These negative perceptions affect millions of non-native speakers around the world daily, in work, school and general interactions. For example, a large number of universities have reported issues surrounding the growing number of non-native teaching assistant students graduating with reportedly low English proficiency and unintelligible speech (Gill, 1994; Gluszek & Dovido, 2010). Nonetheless, undergraduates who attend classes taught by non-native speakers do not perform worse than students who attend classes taught by native speakers (Gluszek & Dovido, 2010; Fleisher, Hashimoto, &Weinberg, 2002). In reality, it is often the perception of an accent, not the accent itself, which can lead to negative evaluations of non-native teachers (Gluszek & Dovido, 2010; Rubin & Smith, 1990). In fact, the more a student perceives an accent, the lower their rating of the non-native teaching assistant (Rubin & Smith, 1990).  American students gave positive ratings to professors with similar accents to their own, claiming to comprehend them more, compared to non-native accented professors (Gill, 1994). Gill (1994) hypothesized that students spend cognitive resources trying to understand non-native accented professors; therefore, less attention was spent on comprehending the material taught (Gill, 1994; Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010). This lack of comprehension relates directly to the lack of credibility many non-native accented speakers experience, with both stemming from listeners having difficulty processing information from accented speakers (Gill, 1994; Lev-Ari & Keysar, 2010).

Many factors affect how non-native speakers are perceived, including the listener’s lingual experiences and processing abilities, as well as stereotypes and ethnocentrism. A listener’s prejudices against a cultural group can affect their judgement of an accented speaker; however, many listener’s negative perceptions of accented speakers are more due to their lack of experience with other accents, difficulty processing the information they receive and their relative degree of ethnocentrism. Societies around the globe are becoming increasingly multicultural, both socially and economically, and non-native accented speakers are interacting with native listeners on a daily basis. Due to this, it is important for everyone to be aware of the issues non-native accented speakers face around the world, and to find counter-measures to inhibit the discrimination of accented speakers.

 Originally written June 2018

References

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Eisenchlas, S.A., and Tsurutani, C. (2011). You sound attractive! Perceptions of accented english in a multi-lingual environment. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 34(2), 216-236.

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Kinzler, K.D., Shutts, K., Dejesus, J., and Spelke, E.S. (2009). Accent trumps race in guiding children’s social preferences. Social Cognition, 27, 623-634.

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Lev-Ari, S., and Keysar, B. (2010). Why don’t we believe non-native speakers? The influence of accent on credibility. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 1093-1096. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.05.025

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Rubin, D.L., and Smith, K.A. (1990). Effects of accent, ethnicity, and lecture topic on undergraduates’ perceptions of nonnative English-speaking teaching assistants. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 14, 337-353

Stevenage, S.V., Clarke, G., and McNeill, A. (2012). The “other-accent” effect in voice recognition. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 24, 647-653.

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