- Everyone speaks with an accent, but we tend to only notice when we travel or learn a new language.
- Accents arise because of how our articulatory settings get programmed early in life.
- These differences are salient to native speakers, impacting employment and educational decision making.
- A number of steps can be taken to reduce accent bias in institutional settings.
What if the way you talked caused you to be denied opportunities that other people have? For instance, when calling to ask about a job opening, you were told it was filled but then found out a friend with a different accent called and was invited to apply. Accent bias, or negative attitudes toward those that have a certain kind of accent, often turns into this type of discrimination.
Speaking with an accent
The linguistic reality is that everyone speaks with accent. People are often unaware of how their speech identifies them as being a member of a certain group, because they mainly hang out with people who are similar to them in terms of where and how they grew up. Travel to another country, though, and people there can often easily pinpoint where you are from by the way you sound. In other words, they can hear your accent, even though you can’t.
Why do we have accents? Because we learn sounds and how to combine them very early in life and based on our native language. Every language has a specific set of sounds it uses, and, when they differ across languages, it is very hard as an adult learner to reprogram your cognitive and articulatory settings to replicate non-native sounds.
This is why the ‘th’ sound is very difficult for those that did not grow up speaking English, as it is not a very common sound across languages. Likewise, consider how many YouTube videos exist trying to explain to English speakers how to make a trilled ‘r’ sound. Though we can approximate the sounds, we are rarely able to truly sound like a native speaker.
Fortunately, just as we are able to understand young children’s voices as opposed to adult voices or recognize two sounds as the same regardless of whether they are produced with a super high pitch (think Mickey Mouse) or very low pitch (e.g., Barry White), we can also acclimate to sounds produced differently due to accents. This is why Americans become better at understanding people with, say, Scottish or Irish accents after spending a few days listening to a lot of people with those accents when visiting those countries.
When difference becomes detrimental
Despite the fact that all of us speak in a way that reflects social and geographical facts about us, there is a difference in how some accents are viewed. Research has repeatedly shown that native speaker accents, particularly those associated with more socially prestigious standard dialects, tend to be strongly favored over non-native accents. Much of this is because non-native accents can serve as triggers to stereotypes people have about the groups to which accented speakers belong. And this bias has real world impacts - affecting how fairly people are treated in educational, legal, and employment settings.
As much of this type of bias is unconscious, it makes it even harder for those in hiring or educational contexts to realize they may be judging an accent rather than a person’s true abilities. Unfortunately, a large body of recent research suggests that having a non-native accent can often result in people experiencing more negative outcomes, particularly in institutional settings.
One study had students listen to audio-recorded interviews, accompanied by a resume and photo, and found that speakers with non-native accents were less likely to be recommended for a middle management position, despite the fact that the interview was scripted and all speakers said the same thing. Likewise, the same researchers found that making a pitch to acquire venture capital with a non-native accent led to less success at getting funding (Huang, Frideger and Pearce 2013).
Research outside of experimental settings shows that employers use accents as a gatekeeping device, telling applicants with non-native accents that the job is filled or requiring additional materials not requested of other applicants. Unlike other forms of discrimination on the basis of race, gender or nationality which are prohibited by law, a preference for native speakers can be argued to be a matter of competence necessary for a job.
Yet, even when non-native speakers are completely fluent, employers and colleagues have been found to still believe that non-native speakers lack cultural and political savvy, often because they do not socialize and make the same efforts to get to know them as they do with native colleagues (Kim et al. 2019).
Back door discrimination
The bottom line is that accent bias may limit how well non-native speakers can compete with other speakers for the same opportunities, even if they are completely fluent. Research that spans domains as varied as housing, education, the legal system and healthcare show very similar results.
So, what is the solution? Accent bias is a complex problem but there are some basic steps individuals and organizations can take to reduce its impact. Studies that ask participants to take another group’s perspective or perform role playing tasks such as trying themselves to communicate in another language often find that such tasks mitigate negative evaluations of non-native accents (Hansen, Rakić and Steffens 2014).
As well, research finds that the level of pre-existing prejudice a listener has going into an interaction appears to determine the likelihood of discriminatory decisions (L. E. C. Souza, et al. 2016). Such findings suggest that programs that address and attempt to increase awareness and reduce bias will be successful in limiting the degree to which such bias occurs.
In our increasingly diverse world, putting the burden on those with non-native accents to accommodate to native varieties will not solve the problem, nor is it effective as fluent non-native speakers suffer similar bias. When a larger range of voices are heard and the diversity of our social networks expand to include them, research shows that everyone benefits.
de Souza, Luana Elayne Cunha, Pereira, C. R., Camino, L., de Lima, Tiago Jessé Souza, & Torres, A. R. R. (2016). The legitimizing role of accent on discrimination against immigrants. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46(5), 609-620.
Hansen, K., Rakić, T., & Steffens, M. C. (2014). When actions speak louder than words: Preventing discrimination of nonstandard speakers. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 33(1), 68-77.
Huang, Laura, Marcia Frideger, and Jone L. Pearce. 2013. Political Skill: Explaining the Effects of Nonnative Accent on Managerial Hiring and Entrepreneurial Investment Decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology 98 (6), 1005–1017.
Kim, R., Roberson, L., Russo, M., & Briganti, P. (2019). Language Diversity, Nonnative Accents, and Their Consequences at the Workplace: Recommendations for Individuals, Teams, and Organizations. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 55(1), 73–95.