Understanding Accent Bias

In an earlier stage of my professional career, I worked as an English composition and literature instructor at a variety of community colleges in the Chicago metropolitan area.  In those days, it was still not uncommon for students to turn in handwritten drafts of their essays.  Some students had clear penmanship; others had handwriting that was extremely difficult to read.

chicken scratch

Although I always tried my best to be fair to my students, I confess (all these years later) that the essay drafts that were turned in with poor penmanship–the ones that required me to struggle to decipher the actual words, before I could even examine the grammar or meaning–were likely judged more harshly and may have received more negative feedback than the content might have deserved, had the handwriting been easier to process.  In fact, whenever I struggled with a student’s handwriting, our first conference would always begin with me informing the student that he or she had to type all future drafts, or suffer the consequences. I made this demand because I did not want the frustration caused by my inability to decipher “chicken scratch” to cause me to unfairly doubt the intelligence of my students.

I am sharing this anecdote in a blog post about accent bias, not because I think foreign accents can or should be compared to poor penmanship–on the contrary, I think accents add valuable flavor and diversity to language–but because my visceral response to my students with non-standard handwriting was very similar to the way that some native speakers respond when they encounter a person with a foreign accent.

During my tenure as the director of a university intensive English language program, I often heard complaints from international students and faculty members who were fluent speakers of English, but who felt discouraged when they experienced what they perceived to be incidents of accent bias from their American peers.  It is quite natural to jump to the conclusion that xenophobia, or innate prejudice against those perceived as outsiders, was the primary root of this bias.  Although prejudice, unfortunately, is sometimes the cause, there is research to support that pinning bias on prejudice alone may be an unfair oversimplification.

In a 2010 article in Scientific American, Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent, authors Matthew S. McGlone and Barbara Breckinridge analyze the research of University of Chicago psychologists Shiri Lev-Ari and Boaz Keysar concerning the influence of accent on credibility. McGlone and Breckinridge summarize the research findings as follows:

  • Foreign accents make speech somewhat more difficult for native speakers to parse
  • This difficulty reduces “cognitive fluency” – or the ease with which the brain processes stimuli
  • This reduction in the ease with which the brain processes stimuli 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–hence, accent bias

Most businesses and institutions now understand that there is strength in diversity, and that a diverse workforce is usually an “accented” workforce.   Understanding the causes of accent bias, and the fact that bias may not always be rooted in prejudice, but may more frequently be the natural result of cognitive processing difficulties, can open the door to better intercultural communication. For people who have had limited experience with foreign accents, a conscious effort is required to avoid unconscious accent bias; knowing this should inform a company’s training and hiring practices, if the goal is to promote diversity and equity in the workforce.

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