What do accents say about us?
Italian-sexy, French-romantic, Spanish-passionate-are these just stereotypes or do accents really imbue people with certain attributes? I was reading an article recently entitled “Very British Villains”. The author, Chi Luu, suggested that speakers of the Queens English (Received English Pronunciation) are rated to be better educated, intelligent and of a higher socioeconomic class by people who don’t speak the “Queens English”. Conversely, they are also rated to be less trustworthy, less sincere and less kind. Hollywood often casts “posh” English speaking villains such as Alan Rickman in Die Hard and Peter Cushing in Star Wars to name two. During Trevor Noah’s recent stand-up performance in New York he talked about people’s perception of the Russian accent as being scary. “Russians are the most feared people on the planet. They do that thing when they speak that strikes fear in the hearts of men”.
Why do we make judgments about people based on the stereotypes we have about their accents? Where do we get these stereotypes and why do they persist?
Many studies have shown that we give people attributes just by hearing their accent and English pronunciation. A 2011 study (Rakic et al) found that a person’s accent was even more important than actually seeing the person when determining ethnicity. They also noted that American participants were surprised when hearing a black person speak English with a posh British accent or when hearing a Caucasian person pronounce English words like a rapper (think Ali G).
Scientists are now discovering that the reasons we stereotype someone based on their accent may actually start with how our brains process foreign accents. Firstly, it’s harder to understand someone who is speaking English with a foreign accent. This difficulty alone can change how non-native speakers are perceived. In a study conducted at the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics, native English speakers rated recordings of people with the heaviest accents as being the least true, while recordings of native speakers were rated as being the most true. This researcher suggested that “we’re less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent” likely because of the difficulty understanding the accent.
This stereotyping of someone based on an accent appears to be common. In surveys which rate where (in the U.S.A.) people speak with “proper English pronunciation” or “incorrect English pronunciation,” the Southern states always rated the lowest. In fact, researchers found that people speaking with an American “Southern twang” were judged to be less intelligent, but also likely to be nicer. In the same survey the Italian accent was judged to sound beautiful but the German accent was judged to sound ugly.
The preference for the sound of ones own accent starts at birth but stereotypes of accents are learned in childhood and have a persuasive, unconscious effect on our perceptions. At Change Your Accent we believe that there is no “correct” or “incorrect” accent. We believe in the principles of equality and diversity and that empowering people with the tools for effective speaking skills will help them succeed.
For more information on how to change your accent, check out Change Your Accent consulting.