In a world that is becoming smaller and smaller, a mix of different cultures becomes more prevalent in our job and also our private life. For this reason, being exposed to peers speaking in a non-native accent has become very natural. Especially prominent are non-native accents in English, as this is considered the universal language of communication nowadays. With the trend of the world becoming a smaller and smaller place, so increases the number of people speaking with a non-native accent. Foreign languages and accents gain more importance especially in the job sector which we generally consider a positive development. However, evaluating the psychological burdens of placing a non-native speaker in an environment of native speakers is a necessity. Especially large are the problems of discrimination. Although the judging of people based on physical characteristics has decreased, foreign accents are still used as a way to discriminate certain cultures.
What is a non-native accent?
A non-native accent is described to have a different pronunciation of vowels and consonants, and a difference in stress and tone is seen when compared to a native accent. The speaker with the non-native accent often applies some of the rules and sounds of his native language. If a sound in the second language is not present in the speaker’s native language, that phoneme will be substituted by the most similar phoneme in the native language causing it to sound different in the second language. Though individuals with a foreign accent are very proficient in that language, the accent is what remains and is not easily lost after a developmental window has closed. Until puberty, an individual is able to learn a foreign language and at the same time acquire the native accent. However, for any language that is acquired later in life, the non-native accent is almost impossible to get rid of. Nevertheless, the ease of obtaining a native accent in a foreign language also depends on the years the person has lived in the foreign country and how similar the phonemes are to the native language.
Typically, native speakers find it fairly easy to spot a person talking in a non-native accent and to them, it is perceived as foreign or even “wrong”. According to United Nations reports, today more than 232 million people live in a country different from the country they were born in.
Brain areas involved when speaking in a non-native accent
Learning a new language is highly recommended for anyone. According to a Swedish study, a brain scan of adults learning a foreign language and therefore speaking in a non-native accent revealed increases of gray matter in language-related brain regions. Depending on how well they performed in learning the foreign language and their efforts they put in, their brain areas developed differently. The most profound observation was the growth of the hippocampus and three other brain areas to be associated with better language learning. Even though this study only took into account short-term changes, there is no doubt a more developed brain through learning languages will be beneficial for older ages. One of the benefits, for instance, is the later onset of Alzheimer’s in multilingual compared to monolinguals.
A different study looked at brain activity when native English or native Japanese were asked to identify between the English /r/ and /l/. From experience, we know native Japanese speakers to have trouble differentiating between these two particular English phonemes. Also in the study, the Japanese speakers had problems differentiating and producing the two phonemes. The reason for this was found to be a difference in activity of specific brain regions when comparing the two groups. These areas are responsible for the perception of speech.
Non-native accent: The problems of discrimination in the job
With an influx of immigrants, the selection of foreign potential employees of a company becomes bigger as well. Discrimination of minorities is unfortunately still commonplace. A correlation between physical appearance and employability is often observed. However, we should not only look at visual markers but also direct our attention to the several non-native accents of the immigrants when they learn a foreign language. In short, the question is whether discrimination only happens on the physical level or if we are prone to judging people depending on their non-native accents.
A study has looked at this question and conducted an experiment with five groups (Mexican speakers, Indian speakers, Chinese speakers, American speakers and British speakers), each speaking in a particular non-native English accent. They were asked to attend a job interview over the phone. Each group prepared a short sentence containing identical words they had to recite. Obviously, the pronunciation of the individual words due to their accent differed depending on the group. Managers were then asked to listen to each sentence and subsequently evaluate how probable it would be for them to hire each employee based on the sentence they were hearing. Most surprisingly, even the sentence was only different in pronunciation and not content, a speaker with a non-native accent was less likely to be hired than a speaker with a native accent (which was, in this case, an American accent). Nevertheless, one observation was striking: The British speaker group was more likely to be selected by the managers when compared to the native group.
This shows a tendency to discriminate employees whose country is not as highly developed as America. If a person emigrates from a country that enjoys a similar economic status, that same person is not discriminated, in this case, the British group.
In another paper, we see a preference to cooperate with peers speaking the same accent rather than a person talking in a non-native accent.
The results of both studies suggest not only discrimination to happen on a physical level, but also in language. It is a problem which should definitely be considered and tackled as the job recruitment process should not take into account non-native accents if the applicant is able to communicate as well as his native peers. Often, however, the decision to reject a speaker with a non-native accent is made subconsciously with the employer being unaware why the applicant with the foreign accent did not happen to fit into the profile.
Why are non-native accents difficult for our brain?
One possible reason employers might discriminate non-native accent employees has to do with the credibility of the speaker. The manager perceives the employee with the foreign accent to be less credible as he is speaking. This is explained by cognitive fluency referring to the ease with which the brain processes stimuli. If a foreign accent is heard, cognitive fluency is reduced resulting in a more difficult processing of the person receiving the message from the speaker. We see a similar phenomenon in the stock market. Psychologists have shown shares with an easy-to-pronounce name to outperform shares with a hard-to-pronounce name. Similarly, if factual statements are manipulated to be processed easier (writing it in an easier-to-read font), the receivers’ judgment of the statement changes. Cognitive fluency, therefore, plays a crucial role in decision-making suggesting that the employer selecting a native speaker in favor of a non-native speaker cannot really be blamed for his decision.
Ways to reduce prejudices against non-native accent speakers
We might be aware of racial segregation considering physical appearance or religion of an individual. However, it is of paramount importance to add foreign accents to the list of factors contributing to racism. Experiencing racism using non-native accents compared to physique or race is however much more subtle. Judging foreign accents is very subjective (one person considers a foreign accent as very pronounced whereas another person might experience the same person to have only a marginal non-native accent). As a consequence, in real life situations as in the job sector, it becomes challenging to know whether a person’s foreign accent indeed contributed to discrimination. Nevertheless, as the studies have shown, a non-native accent leads to changes how an employer might think about a foreign applicant. As the prevalence of non-native accents is going to increase, we need to be aware of this problem and at best develop strategies to view everyone equally based on their accent. Here are a few things you can do when communicating with a person who is difficult to understand because of his or her non-native accent:
- Do not pretend to understand the foreign speaker. Instead, ask the person to slow down his speech if you have difficulty catching his or her words.
- At the same time, you should speak slowly too. This benefits the receiver with the non-native accent to pick up the sounds more easily.
- Don’t raise your voice. You might think you are speaking too quiet, however, it is most likely not a problem of speech volume, but simply that the foreign speaker is not used to the different pronunciation.
- If the accent of the person is too strong to understand the message, don’t act rude! It might come across impolite to say “Hey, I don’t understand you!” Instead, ask them to repeat the sentence.
- But most importantly, focus on the content of the message! Do not waste time evaluating how the pronounced words of the non-native speaker sound.
Do you have a non-accent experience you would like to share? Please feel free to comment below!