People Trust Accents that Sound Like their Own. Find Out Why.
Everyone has an accent. Accents are influenced by where we grew up, whether it be the North vs. the South in the U.S., the Western world vs. the East, or other accents from around the globe. Conscious and unconscious bias can be affected by accents – a perception that an accented speaker is more attractive or worldly – or less intelligent or untrustworthy. Let’s unpack that a bit.
Discrimination occurs with some accents but not others
Accents contribute to America’s melting pot. They’re an indicator of where we grew up, and sometimes even our social standing. Actors in movies or TV shows can either reinforce or dispel these stereotypes. Southern accents make women seem modest and fragile, like in Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Eliza Doolittle’s British Cockney accent in My Fair Lady gave away her lower-class status and was perceived as “undesirable.” And in Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s Boston accent made him seem as though he wasn’t “wicked smaht” – when in reality, he was.
In the movie A Fish Called Wanda, actor John Cleese speaks fluent Italian and Russian and Jamie Lee Curtis can’t get enough of it. Later, Kevin Kline tries the trick, rattling off Italian foods “melanzane parmigiana con spinachi…” – sounding romantic to Curtis, but laughable to those of us who think he sounds like he’s reading a menu! In this case, the Italian accent was perceived as a positive accent, having positive effects.
Accents can skew people’s trust and acceptance
Consciously or subconsciously, people attribute value to accents and tend to discriminate against non-native speakers. While some accents, such as French and Italian might be perceived as pleasant, studies among English speakers have shown that any foreign accent is often perceived negatively. Research has shown that salespeople with accents are perceived as less knowledgeable or convincing if they have an “undesirable” accent. And when information is hard to process, if an accent is very strong and difficult to understand, the speaker seems less credible.
And sadly, even 20 years after September 11, many Muslim Americans still suffer Islamophobia, and many Muslims continue to face bias and discrimination. Those who speak with Arabic accents may feel it more, their accents identifying them as Middle Eastern – but without the benefit of identifying the important differences between Islam, Al-Qaida, Taliban and ISIS. Muslims are an extremely diverse group and many speak languages other than Arabic. But unfortunately, to some Americans, a Middle Eastern accent is still perceived negatively.
Ingroups and outgroups are learned
Some of the bias can be derived from the fact that a foreign accent signals a person as an outgroup member – an outsider or someone unknown. People tend to favor ingroup members – those who are similar to themselves – over outgroup members. A French Canadian can understand a Parisian (they’re both speaking French, after all!) But each knows the other is different. Studies with children have shown that babies are more likely to accept toys from a native-language speaker, and preschoolers are more likely to choose friends who speak their own language or “sound like them.” An accent is a direct cue as to whether someone is familiar and part of our “society.”
People with accents can be perceived as less trustworthy or knowledgeable
Another study recorded individuals with different accents making factual – but not well-known – statements, such as “the sun shrinks five feet every hour.” Participants were more likely to believe the statements to be true when they were read by a native speaker, compared to an accented speaker. If the bias was because the non-native speaker was more difficult to understand, this cements the idea that accents can hold professionals back in their career. If the bias was because the non-native speaker was perceived as less trustworthy, accent training can remove barriers and lead to better business opportunities.
Accents don’t reflect intelligence or trustworthiness, nor do they indicate proficiency in a language. (Non-native speakers can be fluent in a language and retain their native accent!) Accent Coaching can help non-native speakers gain confidence and help achieve professional and educational goals. If you’re looking for help with accent modification or reduction, AccentAccurate offers coaching programs to meet your needs.
Contact Us to see which of our programs is best suited for you.