By Andreea Calude 07/01/2020


As someone who learnt English late-ish in life, I was always on the look-out for signs which betray my foreignness, afraid that my clumsy mispronunciation or syntactic misalignment will give away my outsider status. And for once, sadly, my worries were well-founded it seems.

It’s bad, prejudice is rife!

In a study published last year, Roessel and her colleagues found that non-native accents fare consistently worse than native-like accents (2019). This is not new in itself. It agrees with a ton of other previous work. But it’s even worse than we first thought.

The 2019 study reports that non-native accents are rated significantly lower on job hire-ability scales than native-like accents, regardless of what the candidates actually said in the interview. Furthermore, they do worse even in the eyes of non-native speakers themselves. Even more troubling is the fact that they still fare badly even if the language of the interview is itself irrelevant to the job. In one experiment, students rate potential lecturers based on the candidates’ English-language interviews, but the student raters are told that the teaching would subsequently be done in German, not English. And even these candidates receive lower scores when their accents are non-native (in English!).

So where’s the logic in that you ask? The ‘logic’ is that people tend to categorize others by their speech, in much the same manner as they do by their appearance, their car, their coffee taste, etc. We tend to favour those like us and be suspicious of those unlike us. We also distrust those who sound foreign.We transfer characteristics we value on ways of dressing, speaking and acting even when there is no direct logical link between these.

And it’s not just in the US…. nor is it limited to non-English natives. Speaking English may still not be ‘enough’ – you also need to be speaking the ‘right’ kind of English.

But it can be diminished by awareness!

There is some good news in all this however! Although we are hopelessly judgmental against foreign accents, we can be trained to do better by simply being made aware of our own biases. In a follow-up experiment, Roessel et al showed that when students were explicitly prompted with information that candidates may be speaking in a language other than their mother tongue, and specifically instructed that non-native accents tend to be wrongly downgraded and biased against, the prejudice against non-native accents was also reduced.

So next time you ask someone  “Where are you from?”, you might want to consider the different implications that lurch behind this undoubtedly well-meaning and innocent question. Just sayin’ eh (in a very Kiwi accent).

References:

Roessel, J., Schoel, C., Zimmermann, R., & Stahlberg, D. (2019). Shedding new light on the evaluation of accented speakers: Basic mechanisms behind nonnative listeners’ evaluations of nonnative accented job candidatesJournal of Language and Social Psychology38(1), 3-32.

Observatory of Educational Innovation piece: The Accent as a Basis for Prejudice in Academia (2019)

BBC write-up- “English-only: The movement to limit Spanish speaking in the US”   (2019)

Guardian article: “Where Are You Really From? skewers singular white Australian identity“? (2018)

Conversation piece: “How your foreign accent can unfairly destroy your credibility“. (2019)