Accented Speech is Rated as Less Truthful

My grandparents, and most of my relatives of that generation, were immigrants to the United States.  Except for one grandfather - who had taken elocution lessons – they spoke with noticeable accents. Perhaps because of that experience, in addition to my training as a speech-language pathologist, I feel very comfortable conversing with non-native speakers of English. While I typically understand accented speech – sometimes following a warm-up period – I realize that many people do not. Although most Americans have immigrant roots, some may be too far removed from that experience to view accents the way that I do.

A recent study about accents was conducted at the University of Chicago by two non-native speakers of English, Shiri Lev-Ari – a post doctoral researcher – and Boaz Keysar – a professor of psychology and specialist in communication. The results of their study were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This study has also been referred to in other articles such as those published by ABC News, Scientific American, and Psychology Today. 
Lev-Ari and Keysar had hypothesized that difficulty understanding accented speech affects a speaker’s credibility in a way that cannot be explained by stereotypes regarding those who are foreign born. In the first part of their study, steps were taken to avoid the influence those stereotypes might have. The results revealed that – as the researchers had predicted – “… accented speech was rated as less truthful than native speech.” The more difficult an individual was to understand, the lower their “truthfulness rating” was. There were small, but clinically significant, differences between the scores assigned to statements made by native speakers, speakers with mild accents, and speakers with heavy accents. In the second part of the study, the participants were told that the focus was going to be on whether foreign accents affected the credibility of the statements that were made. Subjects were to try to overcome any tendency to doubt the statements produced by those with foreign accents. They did judge the statements made by both those with American accents and those with mild foreign accents to be equally truthful. However, the statements that were produced by those with heavy foreign accents were less likely to be rated as truthful.

An article in Scientific American, “Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent” (September 21, 2010), was written in response to the new research by psychologists at the University of Chicago. According to the authors, Matthew S. McGlone and Barbara Breckinridge, while people prefer messages that are easy to process, non-native accents make speech more difficult to process. The tendency to favor stimuli that are readily processed has been supported by other studies. It has been found that shares of stock in companies with names that are easier to pronounce are purchased more frequently than those with names that are more difficult to pronounce. Studies have also shown that improving the ease with which statements are processed by making irrelevant changes – like using a cleaner font – can affect whether they are believed.

Art Markman, Ph. D., writing in Psychology Today (September 24, 2010), commented on the implications of the study at the University of Chicago. Since accents may affect beliefs about the accuracy of statements made by non-native speakers of English, he advised native speakers of English to compensate by utilizing additional sources of information. His message to non-native speakers of English who “… have to spend some time influencing other people’s opinions …” is that “… it might be worth spending some time working on your accent. Unfortunately, if your accent makes it hard for people to understand what you are saying, that could be translated into a lack of trust in what you are trying to say.”

A few crucial changes in pronunciation can have a big impact on the intelligibility of a non-native speaker. If you feel that the time is right for you to participate in an accent modification program, a speech-language pathologist can design and implement a program for you.