Wednesday, November 17, 2010

reasons to go for a native accent

Below, you'll find two articles that show how an accent will affect a listener. If you want to be more easily understood as well as appear more trustworthy, you'd better speak like the native speakers that you're talking to.

Listeners' brains respond more to native accent speakers; Imaging study suggests accents are subtle 'insider' or 'outsider' signal to the brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 17, 2010

ScienceDaily (Nov. 16, 2010) — The brains of Scots responded differently when they listened to speakers with Scottish accents than to speakers with American or British accents, a new study has found. Understanding how our brains respond to other accents may explain one way in which people have an unconscious bias against outsiders.

The research was presented at Neuroscience 2010, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, held in San Diego.

"Many positive and negative social attributes are inferred from accents, and it's important to find the underlying cognitive mechanisms of how people perceive them," said lead author Patricia Bestelmeyer, PhD. "Accents affect perceptions of competence or trustworthiness, important attributes for salesmen and jobseekers alike."

Research conducted at the University of Glasgow suggests that people process words spoken with their own accent more quickly and effortlessly than other accents. In the study, 20 Scots listened to recordings of nine female speakers (three American, three British, and three Scottish) while their brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The authors suspected that brain activity in an area associated with accent processing would decrease as accented words were repeated and the brain became accustomed to them. However, they found this occurred only when the Scots listened to American or British accents, and not to Scottish accents, suggesting the listeners had to adapt to outsiders' accents, but not their own.

"The pattern of neural activity differed strikingly in response to their own specific accent compared with other English accents," Bestelmeyer said. "The initial results suggest that such vocal samples somehow reflect group membership or social identity, so that 'in-group' voices are processed differently from the 'out-group.'"

Foreign accents make speakers seem less truthful to listeners, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 17, 2010,

ScienceDaily (July 20, 2010) — A foreign accent undermines a person's credibility in ways that the speaker and the listener don't consciously realize, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

Because an accent makes a person harder to understand, listeners are less likely to find what the person says as truthful, researchers found. The problem of credibility increases with the severity of the accent.

"The results have important implications for how people perceive non-native speakers of a language, particularly as mobility increases in the modern world, leading millions of people to be non-native speakers of the language they use daily," said Boaz Keysar, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on communication.

"Accent might reduce the credibility of non-native job seekers, eyewitnesses, reporters or people taking calls in foreign call centers," said Shiri Lev-Ari, lead author of "Why Don't We Believe Non-native Speakers? The Influence of Accent on Credibility," written with Keysar and published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Levi-Ari is a post-doctoral researcher at the University whose work focuses on the interactions between native and non-native speakers.

To test the impact of accent on credibility, American participants were asked to judge the truthfulness of trivia statements by native or non-native speakers of English, such as, "A giraffe can go without water longer than a camel can."

Simple prejudice could affect ratings of truthfulness, so the researchers tried to minimize that effect by telling participants the information in the statements was prepared for the speakers, and was not based on the speakers' own knowledge.

Despite knowing the speakers were reciting from a script, the participants judged as less truthful the statements coming from people with foreign accents. On a truthfulness scale prepared for the experiment, the participants gave native speakers a score of 7.5, people with mild accents a score of 6.95 and people with heavy accents a score of 6.84.

"The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying," Keysar said. "They misattribute the difficulty of understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statements."

In a second experiment, researchers tested whether awareness reduces the impact of accent on perceived truthfulness. Researchers told participants that they were being tested to see if accents undermine credibility.

That experiment was conducted with identical recorded statements, but with different results. While participants rated statements with mild accent just as truthful as statements by native speakers, they rated heavily accented statements as less truthful, Lev-Ari said.

Accent is one of the factors that influences people's perception of foreigners in a society, Keysar pointed out. But its insidious impact on credibility is something researchers had not previously known, he added.


  1. Ya, I've noticed this personally. Accent heavily affects people's assessment of another person's intelligence, and also their tolerance for mistakes, etc. One place this first became visible to me was the situation of seeing someone come on to a bus, and have some sort of problem with paying or something. I've notice that if the person has heavily accented speech, the bus driver is less likely to be sympathetic, and more likely to just be impatient or rude.

    Here in Germany, I notice that friends who speak decent German, but with a strong American accent, will have the problem that Germans commonly switch back to English on them. People have told me that my accent is much less placeable, so they just keep on speaking German because they don't know what other language they might have to switch to...or it just feels more natural and comfortable to talk with someone who has a nice accent.

    For people learning English, I've told them that having a good accent is much more important than any grammar problems. If you have a perfect accent, but crappy grammar, everyone will think you're doing great and consider you intelligent. But if you have perfect grammar and a strong accent, then people will wonder why you haven't learned how to speak "properly" yet. This is especially important in North America where most native English speakers never seriously try to learn another language, so they don't generally know how much work it can take.

  2. The research makes sense but there are other more complicated elements to overlay.

    Simple example, I had a friend at school who was Turkish half French and had lived in France, Turkey and England growing up. He could speak three languages and whilst I can't vouch for the other two his English was perfect. He was very successful with girls and DELIBRATELY spoke English with a slight French accent when trying to pick up English girls, if asked he would claim to be French (an accent that on balance is considered more romantic). Regardless of more trustworthy or not it worked for sure.

    I also remember being told (and having observed) that advertising aimed at UK consumers will often use French or Itallan accented English to promote romatic or food products, and German accented English to promote technical products. This bias obviously overrides trustworthyness in these cases.

    Then there is Stephan Fry who wooed Americans (Hugh Laurie as House is another good example) with English accent, ironically if you look online you can find Stephan Fry from some time before being quoted as saying how easily manyAmericans are taken in by an English accent which they can mistake for culture and intelligence).

    Back to the examples give above, Scots have a reputation for being tough, in many cases a Scottish guy in England would probably be best sticking to his Scottish accent when trying to front someone out in a potentially violent situation In fact my Turkish/French friend would revert to a particular London accent (where he had spent some time) that sounded tougher in hairy situations.

    There are also women in the UK from romance language countries that get more mileage and make a better impression on guys by retaining some of their accent no matter how good their English, not such an advantage and maybe even the opposite for some of the Germanic or Eastern Eurpean language women (who sound less feminine to English ears).

    I have seen a guy punched out in a pub in Slough (a very rough pub that I regretted having chosen to visit) just for speaking his own language "too posh" (this was in the early 1980's).

    Whilst these observatons do not detract from the observations of the research, the real world can be very complicated.

  3. I agree. My wife's Turkish accent is better than many other expats and even when she is out with people whose Turkish is much better than hers, Turks tend to differ to her - at first. But I think the main point is that we can improve accent and that we should. Too often this is an easy one to rationalize away and never really work on. Thanks for unpacking the article for us.

  4. Which person do you think is more likely to acquire a native-sounding accent:

    a) person who has refrained from speaking the language for over 2 years;

    b) person who has been speaking and perfecting his accent for the last 2 years?

  5. Would you care to explain how NOT practicing something for 2 years can help you?

  6. "Would you care to explain how NOT practicing something for 2 years can help you?" by Alexandre.

    Why would I care to explain that? That's not something I stated.

  7. In that case, please explain why you'd bet on A. Sorry, but I don't get it.

  8. I understand why Keith posted the evidence on the advantages of a native accent. But I think we ought to first define what a native accent is. Personally, I can't agree on Scottish accent being non-native. As long as one's native language is English, his/her accent is native accent, regardless it's American, Aussi or Canadian. On the other hand, I believe that non-native accent could be pleasant (or unpleasant). Very personally, I think a French accent for English is sexy yet a turn-off the other way around.


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