Pity the poor, forlorn foreign graduate teaching assistant at an American university – far from home and family, living on a meager stipend, cramming by day and grading by night, fielding questions from undergraduates like “Do people wear regular clothes in your country?” or “Are any of your relatives terrorists?”
Of the many indignities international students endure, accent discrimination may be the most mortifying, in part because it is still widely accepted in our society. Like skin color or attire, accent is a characteristic we routinely use to identify someone as unfamiliar or foreign. But while most people understand that discrimination based on visual appearance is wrong, bias against foreign speech patterns is not universally recognized as a form of prejudice. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on national origin, but is mum on the subject of accent bias. Moreover, employers who deny jobs to non-native speakers can protect themselves by arguing that a foreign accent impairs communication skills essential to the workplace.
As intuitive as this argument may seem, however, evidence of on-the-job “accent impairment” is scarce. And for all the hue and cry undergraduates have raised over the years about “unintelligible” non-native instructors, numerous studies have failed to detect any significant differences in performance between students taught by native English and non-native instructors. So why do foreign accents still get a bad rap in the ostensibly open-minded oasis of academia and beyond?
New research by University of Chicago psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar suggests that prejudice is only part of the problem. Non-native accents make speech somewhat more difficult for native speakers to parse and thereby reduces “cognitive fluency” – i.e., the ease with which the brain processes stimuli. And this, they found, causes people to doubt the accuracy of what is said.
Not surprisingly, people prefer stimuli that are easy to process to those that are hard. In recent years, psychologists have explored the surprising extent to which our preference for the easy influences our thinking. For example, studies of stock purchases have shown that shares in companies with names that are easy to pronounce are bought at higher rates than others that are harder to pronounce. Other studies have shown that when people judge a statement’s accuracy, manipulations that make the statement easier to mentally process -- even totally irrelevant changes like putting it in a cleaner font or making it rhyme -- can alter people’s judgment of its truth, along with their evaluation of the intelligence of the statement’s author and their confidence in their own judgments and abilities.
Lev-Ari and Keysar hypothesized that the difficulty of understanding accented speech has a unique effect on a speaker’s credibility that cannot be attributed to stereotypes about foreigners. A good test case for this idea would be a speaker who is simply delivering a message from a native speaker. If people find the message less believable when the messenger has an accent, then the judged credibility is impacted by the cognitive fluency associated with processing speech, not by prejudice.
Lev-Ari and Keysar put this idea to the test in a simple experiment. They asked people to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements were recited by either native or non-native English speakers. (Example: A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can.) The non-native speakers had mild or heavy Asian, European, or Middle Eastern accents. The subjects were told that all the statements had been written by the researchers but, still, the subjects tended to doubt them more when recited with an accent.