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Accent-u-rating

This is a guest post by Ellen Shubich.

Ellen ShubichRecently, a leak occurred in an apartment we own in Florida and the repair job was taking a lot of time. The woman in the apartment below became impatient and angry, and threats were voiced. During one of our conversations, I mentioned that I live in Mexico. When she discovered that I speak Spanish, she told me that she was Puerto Rican, and our relationship immediately transformed into a friendly exchange, during which we eventually worked things out.

The bond created by our common language got me thinking about the language difficulties our daughter has faced in Florida. Her mother tongue is Spanish, and though her English is good, she has a Mexican accent. Experiences with some English-speaking Floridians who have had little or no patience with her accent have affected her self-confidence, and I wondered whether stereotyping or prejudice might play a part in this.

Reflecting on my work as an English teacher and principal in a bicultural school in Mexico, I noted that many parents voiced preferences for an “American accent just like mine.” Inwardly, I would smile, because I have never considered my Bronx accent to be highly desirable. Outwardly, my passionate monologues on US English dialects and accents fall on deaf ears.

And so the question of accents piqued my curiosity. Does research indicate that native English speakers react differently to those who speak English with accents? If so, why?

A quick look revealed some interesting clues.

  1. There are accent preferences.

“Ask a native English speaker which is the most attractive foreign accent and you will receive a variety of replies, but among the most commonly cited attractive accents are French and Italian.”1

  1. Even children seem to have language and accent preferences.

“[T]he subconscious judgments that you make about someone which are influenced by their accent can be huge. . . . Experiments have shown that infants are more likely to accept toys from people who speak their native language. Preschool children preferentially choose native language speakers as friends. And different accents are enough to trigger these social preferences.”1

  1. Things may be changing.

Previously, in Great Britain, “. . . speaking with a regional accent more likely indicated a working class background and state education for children, with various stereotypical characteristics assigned to differing regions, . . . but today’s generation is less inclined to [make these kinds of assumptions]. . . . With an increasingly educated population, the old ties between accent and social class are fast coming loose.”2

  1. A foreign accent may affect the perception of the speaker’s credibility.

“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. . . . 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.”3

This is only a brief glance at the question of accents, but surely in a global world in which citizens of different countries communicate in varied English accents this issue merits our close attention.

  1. Hammond, Alex. (Nov. 17, 2014) “Why Are Some Accents More Attractive.” Retrieved from A World of Languages Blog, http://blog.esl-languages.com/blog/esl/foreign-accents-attractive/
  2. Clark, Urszula. “You Are What You Speak.” Retrieved from Aston University Research Portal, http://www.aston.ac.uk/research/case-studies/you-are-what-you-speak/
  3. McGlone, Matthew S., and B. Breckinridge. “Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent.”Scientific American 303(3). Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-brain-doubts-accent/

Ellen Schubich was born and raised in the Bronx and moved to Mexico 48 years ago when she married. She has a B.S.N. degree from Cornell University-New York Hospital and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from the Universidad La Salle. Ellen has held many different positions: nurse, gerontologist, teacher of nursing, English teacher, coordinator, principal (Elementary and Middle School), and English principal. She is married, has a son and daughter and three grandchildren.